We’ve discovered that spiritual growth happens metaphorically—but it would be erroneous to imply that all spiritual growth results from the willful application of the metaphorical process.
A substantial portion of our experience is beyond our control. In addition, many of our most memorable experiences in life center on negative events, whether they be injustices suffered at the hands of others or simply the myriad unfortunate accidents that are the lot of us mortal beings. But though such negative experiences may not result from our intentional application of the metaphorical process, we can still extract from them some of our most significant spiritual lessons.
To begin with, negative experience can be generally classified in three broad categories:
- First, there are accidents like those suffered by Job, events we might describe in terms of chance, natural disasters (ironically termed “acts of God”).
- Second, there are negative experiences resulting from the iniquity, malice, or injustice of others, the sort of experience that provoked Boethius to write his treatise.
- Third, there are the negative experiences that result from our own ignorance of, or refusal to abide by the guidance bestowed by the prophets—those moral laws we cited earlier as having the same relationship to our lives as do physical laws of cause and effect.
The traditional problem in understanding experiences of the first category is an obvious one. If God loves us and has the power to prevent such events, why does He not do so? Or, following what we have just observed about the benign intent of physical reality, what is the metaphorical value of such experience?
If accidents are part of the punishment inherent in the system of rewards and punishments, how do we account for the death of the innocent? Furthermore, if God has foreknowledge, then He is aware that a chance disaster will occur—and if He is aware that it will occur, it must occur, or so traditional reasoning goes. Therefore, aren’t these foreseen events unavoidable or predestined?
In the face of such reasoning and the unfortunate events that often befall humankind, many have found it extremely difficult to believe in a loving Deity. The solution for some is to re-create God in an image that makes Him exist, but not be responsible because He is constrained by the laws of nature that He has created: In effect, their reasoning goes, God is limited in what He can do by the laws of nature and by the evolution of human nature.
Juxtaposed to wars and other unspeakable sorts of inhumanity, our view of physical reality as a just and exquisite teaching device may indeed seem to falter and fail. To respond even briefly to these concerns, we first need to clarify what we mean by evil, because we tend to classify experience quite broadly, even as we have done above.
We tend to categorize as evil all things that we perceive as negative at a given point in time and from a given point of view. These “negative” events might include human immorality, lightning, floods, disease, political tyranny, insects, sharks, and fast food. Our tendency to apply the broad rubric of “negative” or “evil” to such un-parallel and diverse experiences is understandable—we naturally assume that whatever occurs in God’s universe is directly or indirectly His responsibility. He is logically guilty of either malfeasance or nonfeasance while operating heavy equipment—meaning our planet and the rest of the universe.
From a Baha’i point of view there is only one sort of occurrence that can appropriately be designated as “evil”—our willful rejection of our divine purpose. Baha’u’llah states that “the source of all evil is for man to turn away from his Lord and set his heart on things ungodly.” – Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 156. This is very specific. Yet “evil” in this sense does not include the failure to recognize the manifestation as a result of our having an improper or inadequate education or our falling prey to other forces beyond our control:
But if the prophetic injunctions have not reached a place and the people fail, as a result, to act in conformity with the divine teachings, then they are not held accountable according to the laws of religion. For instance, Christ enjoined that cruelty should be met with kindness. If a person remains unaware of this injunction and acts according to the promptings of nature, that is, if he returns injury for injury, then he is not held accountable according to the laws of religion, for this divine injunction has not been conveyed to him. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 309.
Stated another way, there is no evil inherent in God’s creation except for those events that proceed from humanity’s willful rejection of goodness. Thus when Abdu’l-Baha states that “in the innate nature of things there is no evil—all is good,” – Ibid., p. 248. he means that there is no source of evil. Terms such as sin, Satan, evil, and wickedness appear in the Baha’i writings, even as they have appeared in the scriptures of previous revelations, but they designate an action or causal relationship, not an essence.
The term Satan, for example, is employed most frequently as a metaphor for the temptations of the “self”—to be self-centered or self-absorbed, to glory in one’s own accomplishments or personality. But these are willful actions, or inactions, not a failure that results from the subtle seduction of an evil spirit. Abdu’l-Baha said:
God has never created an evil spirit; all such ideas and nomenclature are symbols expressing the mere human or earthly nature of man. – The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 295.
Evil is thus the absence of goodness in the same way that darkness is the absence of light or cold is the absence of heat. Nevertheless, there are very significant effects caused by the absence of light or heat or goodness. Turning away from the source of all life can cause changes in condition that can be momentous and devastating. Consequently, because we strive to understand clearly and to describe accurately these events and their consequences in our lives, we use powerful and vivid metaphorical terms to portray these effects.