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A mysterious enigma exists at the heart of the Baha’i teachings, and I’ve struggled my whole life to try to understand it.
Can you discover it embedded in these three short quotes from Baha’u’llah?
The Divine Messengers have been sent down, and their Books were revealed, for the purpose of promoting the knowledge of God, and of furthering unity and fellowship amongst men. – Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 12.
… haply the peoples of the earth may cleanse their hearts from the stain of evil desire, may rend its veil asunder, and attain unto the knowledge of the one true God—the most exalted station to which any man can aspire. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 85.
To every discerning and illumined heart it is evident that God, the unknowable Essence, the divine Being, is immensely exalted beyond every human attribute, such as corporeal existence, ascent and descent, egress and regress. Far be it from His glory that human tongue should adequately recount His praise, or that human heart comprehend His fathomless mystery. – Baha’u’llah, The Book of Certitude, p. 97.
You can probably see it immediately. The Baha’i teachings say that the messengers of God reveal their books “for the purpose of promoting the knowledge of God” and describe that knowledge as “the most exalted station to which any man can aspire”—and yet, in many places throughout the same Baha’i teachings, we learn that God is an unknowable essence.
In other words, the Baha’i teachings—and the teachings of the other great Faiths, as well—ask us to try to know God, but at the same time recognize the complete impossibility of that quest:
Just as you do not know the path of the wind or how bones are formed in the womb of a pregnant woman, so you do not know the activity of God who makes all things. – Ecclesiastes 11:5.
We humans, after all, have finite mental capacities and abilities. When we try to comprehend the infinite, we fall far short. Don’t believe it? Go outside tonight and look up. When you gaze into the infinite cosmos and try to comprehend it, if you’re honest with yourself, you have to frankly face your massive lack of knowledge and understanding. Everyone with even a shred of humility does.
If you ponder it long enough, that stark realization will lead you, logically and inevitably, to this one: if we can’t comprehend the creation, how can we comprehend its Creator?
The Baha’i teachings say that God is an “unknowable essence,” “far beyond the comprehension of all creatures.” That leaves us with a conundrum: how can we worship God when we can’t know God?
The closest we can get, Abdu’l-Baha said, is by first striving to know ourselves:
The object of God’s teaching to man is that man may know himself in order to comprehend the greatness of God. – Abdu’l-Baha, Abdu’l-Baha in London, p. 80.
So this is the way I’ve come to try and understand the Baha’i enigma: if we human beings are made in God’s image, then deeply understanding our own spiritual reality represents the closest we can possibly come to understanding God.
Think about that paradox this way: we know everything we know solely by its attributes. Consider your best friend—you know that person well, but you don’t and can’t ever know your friend’s innermost essence. You can only know your friend through his or her attributes—through character and through actions, through love and loyalty. In the same way, the Baha’i teachings say, we can try to understand our Creator through the divine attributes:
Knowing God, therefore, means the comprehension and knowledge of His attributes and not of His Reality. And even this knowledge of His attributes extends only so far as human power and capacity permit, and remains wholly inadequate … The power of human understanding does not encompass the reality of the divine Essence: All that man can hope to achieve is to comprehend the attributes of the Divinity; the light of which is manifest and resplendent in the world and within the souls of men. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, pp. 254-255.
All of those Godly attributes—love, mercy, kindness, intelligence, compassion, justice, etc., etc.—can give us a very elementary sense of the nature of our Creator.
From a Baha’i perspective, after we come to know ourselves, we can best grasp and understand those attributes as they manifest themselves in the lives, the actions and the teachings of the prophets, messengers and manifestations of God:
The knowledge of the reality of the Divinity is in no wise possible, but the knowledge of the Manifestations of God is the knowledge of God, for the bounties, splendours, and attributes of God are manifest in Them. – Ibid., p. 256.
This, for Baha’is, defines true worship—to understand that the prophet of God represents the rays of the Sun of Truth, the epitome of Godliness, the emanation of the attributes of the divine. When we try to understand those divine messengers—the prophets like Buddha, Christ, Moses, Muhammad and now Baha’u’llah—we build a path toward the knowledge of God.