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As any teacher knows, the process of abstract thinking is hardly confined to the education of adults. Think about it: when did you start thinking abstractly as a child?
Wittingly and unwittingly a child collects data from daily experiences, perceives the similarities among experiences, and from this collection of images induces abstract beliefs. For example, when a child is punished or corrected for essentially different actions, he or she, at some point, may come to perceive a common link among these different experiences—the x-factor. Perhaps the similar ingredients among rules and obedience may ultimately come to represent various expressions of concern or even of love.
The child then deduces further generalizations about the concepts and may even perceive that among the variety of rules that require obedience to authority is a concept of order and justice. Furthermore, if these same rules at some point prove helpful to his or her well-being, the child may further conclude that some authority is worthy of respect and obedience.
On the other hand, if there is no consistency among the rules, no basis for their administration, the child may understandably conclude that authority is capricious, unjust, frightening, and unworthy of respect.
The child need not be aware of this process and how it works in order for it to exercise its influence on the child’s development. The child may not know that the process is taking place at all, that he or she is thinking metaphorically and forming generalizations from the data collected. But the child is constantly doing it all the same. All human beings make that spiritual journey.
From the initial stages of abstract thought, a child progresses without limit to more encompassing abstractions; concepts are always in a relative state of being perceived and developed. Once having observed authority dramatized in a familial relationship, for example, a child may later collect and store other dramatizations of this abstraction, perhaps from observations of a teacher or public official.
As the process continues, the child continues to collect the data, and may begin to perceive authority as a quality beyond what he or she sees embodied in specific people. A belief in the abstract concepts or virtues of truth, honesty, or kindness may represent an authority far more powerful than any one human exemplifying these attributes. Even in such instances the child still relates the abstraction to the physical world; he or she has come to understand honesty or kindness as manifested in the physical classroom, for example, or among peers and friends.
But there is no point at which the lesson is completed. The abstraction can always be more acutely perceived, more expansively understood, more exquisitely dramatized in the physical world. As we have already seen, such limitless growth is not confined to the individual. Collectively, society itself can grow to understand and apply more fully abstract concepts of authority, justice, or honesty. As that collective awareness progresses, society can become capable of implementing more completely such concepts in social organization and action.
Viewed in the context of our ever-expanding understandings of abstract concepts, the metaphorical process is an educational tool that can help provide limitless development, even if we have no precise moral code or established theological belief.
However, within the context of the Baha’i perception of man’s nature and destiny, this process assumes a much greater significance—not only does this endeavor bring immediate fulfillment and happiness by utilizing the physical metaphor as it was created to be used; it also results in the gradual improvement of the soul itself as, incrementally, particular attributes are habituated and assimilated:
Wherefore, O beloved of the Lord, strive ye with heart and soul to receive a share of His holy attributes and take your portion of the bounties of His sanctity—that ye may become the tokens of unity, the standards of singleness, and seek out the meaning of oneness; that ye may, in this garden of God, lift up your voices and sing the blissful anthems of the spirit. Become ye as the birds who offer Him their thanks, and in the blossoming bowers of life chant ye such melodies as will dazzle the minds of those who know. Raise ye a banner on the highest peaks of the world, a flag of God’s favour to ripple and wave in the winds of His grace; plant ye a tree in the field of life, amid the roses of this visible world, that will yield a fruitage fresh and sweet. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 10.