Religion offers a wide variety of approaches to life.
On one side of the equation, you have religious people like Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King, Jr., passionately dedicated to improving the world. On another side, you have the more otherworldly, such as the sadhus of India, who see this physical existence as a mere illusion, and who therefore devote themselves to detachment from it. So where does the Baha’i Faith lay on this worldly-to-otherworldly spectrum?
Interestingly, the Baha’i Teachings contain aspects of both sides of the equation.
On the one hand, the Baha’i Faith teaches that the purpose of this life involves preparing for the life to come. Baha’is view this world as a training ground, a preparation for the spiritual progression so vitally needed by our immortal souls.
Abdu’l-Baha compares the material world to only a shadow of the everlasting spiritual world:
Man must attach himself to an infinite reality, so that his glory, his joy, and his progress may be infinite. Only the spirit is real; everything else is as shadow. All bodies are disintegrated in the end; only reality subsists. All physical perfections come to an end; but the divine virtues are infinite. – Divine Philosophy, p. 136.
Similarly, to Napoleon III Baha’u’llah asked, “Rejoice thou in that thou rulest a span of earth, when the whole world, in the estimation of the people of Baha, is worth as much as the black in the eye of a dead ant?” Baha’is have no doubt about the insignificance of the world. Whenever we want to put our lives in perspective, the easiest way is to compare ourselves to ants. But lesser than that is a dead ant. And even lesser than that is the eye of that ant. And still lesser is the black in the quantum-like-eye of a dead ant. Given the perspective of the entire universe and all eternity, our world seems so insignificant!
By looking at this, you might expect Baha’is to disregard the world and everything in it.
But that’s not the case at all. Baha’is recognize humanity’s place in the universe, and the importance of this world and its people in relation to the next world. They also see the importance of caring about the world we live in—right here and now.
Baha’is see the natural world as an expression of God’s will. Baha’u’llah explains:
Say: Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Its manifestations are diversified by varying causes, and in this diversity there are signs for men of discernment. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world. It is a dispensation of Providence ordained by the Ordainer, the All-Wise. – Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 141.
Baha’u’llah loved being in nature, a testament also to the innate beauty and value of the natural world.
But while the world God created expresses the grandeur of His spirit, the world human beings have created has deep problems and dire conditions. The Baha’i teachings say we should not sit idly by, however, apathetically waiting to leave this world. Baha’u’llah tells us that we should “Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.”
On the spectrum from caring to detachment, from being worldly to otherworldly, the Baha’i teachings pick “all of the above.”
This isn’t easy–maintaining such an expansive and inclusive world view has its challenges. If our true life finds its permanent home in the spiritual world to come, then why devote ourselves to the betterment of this one? It seems like spending hours at the beach making the perfect sandcastle, knowing that the tide will wash it away.
But of course, human life makes the difference. When we dedicate ourselves to the betterment of the world, the most immediate motivation is alleviating the suffering of its people, many of whom are struggling and barely surviving in the worst of conditions.
Through this process of serving others, the Baha’i teachings say, we develop the virtues and spiritual attributes needed for our life in the next world. This is not the reason we help others, it is a byproduct. We are here, not just to prepare ourselves for our life in the next world, but to build God’s kingdom on earth.
Being a Baha’i means following your spiritual destiny as you devote your life to the well-being of the people around you, helping the world mirror forth the attributes of God.