When you ask yourself the question “Why do we die?” it automatically makes you consider the Creator.
When my class and I reviewed the basic attributes of the Creator the Baha’i teachings describe—loving, kind, merciful, understanding, wise, etc., etc.—we couldn’t find anything to be worried about or fearful of. We made a long list, but we couldn’t find any capriciousness, irrationality, or unpredictability, not over the long haul.
“Enough,” I said after a while. “Since the attributes of God are infinite and our class time is not, let’s presume we have a pretty good idea of what God is all about, how He operates and reacts to any given situation.”
“So why should we fear Him?” said the woman who set the whole dialogue in motion.
“We shouldn’t,” said another woman, who was elderly and who, until now, had kept quiet. She spoke with a thick Persian accent, and had come to American only recently. “What we fear is ourselves, should we turn away from God, because this we can do if we are not careful. Believe me, I know this. I have seen this with my own eyes.”
The class went silent. What with the vicious persecution of the Baha’is in Iran, we could only imagine what she indeed had witnessed during her life as a Baha’i. At last I felt the need to bring closure to our discussion of God, but before I could speak, the woman with the original concern said, “But what about the idea that ‘God doeth whatsoever He willeth.’?”
The spirit that animateth the human heart is the knowledge of God, and its truest adorning is the recognition of the truth that “He doeth whatsoever He willeth, and ordaineth that which He pleaseth.” – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 290.
“Tell me this,” I asked, “Would this loving God we have described ever do anything that was not for the benefit of humankind, or that was intended to be detrimental to any soul?”
“No, of course not.”
“So we need not fear that God would ever do anything to harm us? God will always will that which is for our best interest, our ultimate benefit?”
“It only makes sense,” she said.
“Because God will do whatever is logically best to achieve the ultimately objective of assisting and educating us?”
“He’s perfect, isn’t He?” she answered.
“Then let’s return to your individual who has lived a life of service and selflessness but who, for whatever reason, loses his or her faith at the hour of the soul’s ascent. How would a rational, loving, and forgiving God respond to such a soul? Or let’s put the question in more personal terms. What would you do to such a soul if you were God for a day?”
“I’d forgive him,” she said. “I would shower that soul with love and forgiveness. After all, the person lived a good life and served humanity.” In her tone and inflexion was the clear indication that what she would do might be different from what she inferred this omnipotent Deity might do.
“And do you think God less good, less ‘Godlike’ than you?” She laughed out loud at first, but then returned to the rest of the passage.
“But what about the ‘nethermost fire’? Why would God cause them to fall into the deepest fire?” she continued.
“Hold on. You added something there. The passage does not say that God ‘causes’ them to fall. Their own doubt and sudden loss of faith brings about this descent. Furthermore, what does Baha’u’llah say that symbolic terms like ‘Satan’ and ‘hellfire’ represent?
“The self,” offered the formerly Jewish Baha’i. “The insistent self. Allusions to Satan and the satanic symbolize our own vanity and selfish desires. And the fire represents the agony, the spiritual and emotional pain of what it feels like to be remote from God.”
“There’s one more catch to this,” I concluded. “Notice that the passage does not say that this person who has lived a good life will stay in such a condition. After all, if God is like the good shepherd, should we not presume if one has fallen into the fire, the staff would be quickly lowered down to the temporarily distraught and frantic soul to deliver it?”
This account struck a chord with my friend Leland, even as the exchange in class had with me. Like so many insights about complex questions that occur in any class, a great deal of the enlightenment a teacher acquires derives from the need to formulate answers to the questions. This is perhaps the major ancillary benefits of teaching—the teacher invariably learns more than the students. Or stated another way, when you try to articulate something you think you know, you discover that you begin to comprehend things a whole lot better.