To figure out prophecy, the Baha’i teachings advise us to use our abstract reasoning powers to think beyond literal interpretations.
So you can use your imagination and your inner vision—what are called your “spiritual senses”—to think in abstract terms and to discover the hidden meanings in prophecy.
Let’s talk about our spiritual senses for a moment. The idea of “spiritual senses” isn’t just a Baha’i concept, it’s a venerable Christian doctrine that harks back to the Church Fathers in Late Antiquity. For instance, Maximus Confessor (580–662 CE), a well known Church father, had this to say:
When those who are truly gnostic teach the principles of the mysteries in the scriptures, they use figures as patterns of the things that are historically narrated for the uplifting of their students, adapting the spirit of contemplation to the letter of the narrative. In this way there is preserved both the figure through the sense and the meaning through the mind for man who is composed of both soul and body. Both the literal and the spiritual senses are addressed to the one complete man. – St. Maximus the Confessor, translated by George C. Berthold, “Maximus Confessor: Theologian of the Word,” in Charles Kannengiesser (ed.), Handbook of Patristic Exegesis, Volume 2, p. 947.
In 2006, Cambridge University Press published an entire book on this very topic: The Spiritual Senses: Perceiving God in Western Christianity, edited by Paul L. Gavrilyuk and Sarah Coakley.
Christian theologian Karl Rahner (1904–1984) is widely credited with having first developed a systematic doctrine of the five spiritual senses, or what has been called “the ‘five senses analogy’ of spiritual perception” (The Spiritual Senses, p. 4). Yet, in 1906, when Rahner was just an infant, Abdu’l-Baha preceded him with this Baha’i teaching about our outward and inward powers:
There are five outward material powers in man which are the means of perception, that is, five powers whereby man perceives material things. They are sight, which perceives sensible forms; hearing, which perceives audible sounds; smell, which perceives odours; taste, which perceives edible things; and touch, which is distributed throughout the body and which perceives tactile realities. These five powers perceive external objects.
Man has likewise a number of spiritual powers: the power of imagination, which forms a mental image of things; thought, which reflects upon the realities of things; comprehension, which understands these realities; memory, which retains whatever man has imagined, thought and understood. The intermediary between these five outward powers and the inward powers is a common faculty, a sense which mediates between them and which conveys to the inward powers whatever the outward powers have perceived. It is termed the common faculty, as it is shared in common between the outward and inward powers.
For instance, sight, which is one of the outward powers, sees and perceives this flower and conveys this perception to the inward power of the common faculty; the common faculty transmits it to the power of imagination, which in turn conceives and forms this image and transmits it to the power of thought; the power of thought reflects upon it and, having apprehended its reality, conveys it to the power of comprehension; the comprehension, once it has understood it, delivers the image of the sensible object to the memory, and the memory preserves it in its repository. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 243.
Decoding the hidden meaning of prophecies therefore requires a “spiritual sense”—a perceptive, thoughtful imagination.
When you sit down to read any given prophecy, first ask yourself: “Could this prophecy literally come true?” If it seems impossible, unless a miracle occurred, then you’ll want to consider a figurative, non-literal interpretation. In other words, if the literal meaning of a given prophecy defies the imagination, then use your own imagination—one of your spiritual senses—to figure out the prophecy’s spiritual meaning. If the prophecy is impossible physically, then it must be understood spiritually, figuratively and metaphorically.
So, to figure out prophecy, it’s helpful to know about “figurative language”— including “figures of speech.” “Tropes” are figures of speech, figurative language meant to express abstract truths. These include similes (explicit comparisons), parables (extended similes), metaphors (implicit comparisons), allegories (extended metaphors), proverbs, personifications, anthropomorphisms (personifying the Divine with human features), hyperboles (improbable exaggerations), paradoxes, ironies, enigmas, etc.
All scriptures abound in metaphors, those abbreviated, descriptive comparisons that represent something or someone. A literal text means what it says. It is therefore explicit. A figurative text hints at what it means. It is thereby implicit.
Now here’s a secret it took me years to discover: Apocalyptic prophecies—those “end of the world” visions in scripture—are primarily about people, not things!
So, the next time you’re tempted to read any end-of-the-world prophecy figuratively, ask yourself, “Who?”—not “What?” Consider, for example, Isaiah’s celebrated prophecy of the wolf dwelling with the lamb. Here’s Abdu’l-Baha’s interpretation, in brief:
In Isaiah 11:1 – 9 it is said: “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him. … The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”
This “rod out of the stem of Jesse” might seem to apply to Christ. … Moreover, the events that are said to occur in the days of that rod, if they be interpreted figuratively, came to pass only in part, and if they be taken literally, failed absolutely and entirely to take place in the days of Christ.
For instance, we might say that the leopard and the kid, the lion and the calf, the sucking child and the asp, represent the various nations, the hostile peoples and contending kindreds of the earth who in their opposition an d enmity were even as the wolf and the lamb, and who through the breezes of the messianic Spirit came to be endowed with the spirit of unity and fellowship, were quickened to life, and associated intimately one with another. But the condition referred to in the statement “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” did not materialize in the Dispensation of Christ. For to this day there are various hostile and contending nations in the world. …
But these verses apply word for word to Baha’u’llah. … Ultimately, war will be entirely banned, and when the laws of the Most Holy Book are enacted, arguments and disputes will, with perfect justice, be settled before a universal tribunal of governments and peoples, and any difficulties which may arise will be resolved. The five continents of the world will become as one, its divers nations will become one nation, the earth will become one homeland, and the human race will become one people. – Ibid., pp. 71-73.