Our physical experiences here on Earth limit our ability to conceive of a Creator.
Depending on what language we speak, our particular term for God likely has associations with root words such as strong, great, lofty, shining, or spirit.
Regardless of our word for the Creator, to some degree we have to anthropomorphize God—that is, to refer to God with the pronoun He and visualize Him as human—to begin to understand Him.
The sacred scriptures of most religions tell us that we were created in God’s image. Perhaps we look at ourselves in a mirror, and then imagine what God might look like. But we are asked to look deeper, beyond the merely material reality:
… the cares of the lower things of life should not be allowed to monopolize all the thoughts and aspirations of a human being. The heart’s ambitions should ascend to a more glorious goal, mental activity should rise to higher levels! Men should hold in their souls the vision of celestial perfection, and there prepare a dwelling-place for the inexhaustible bounty of the Divine Spirit. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 100.
To do this, we may look within ourselves and find a capacity for caring and love, or perhaps as we experience the unconditional love and compassion of a parent or other loved one, we begin to understand that God represents the ultimate source of compassion and loving-kindness, that God is love.
The sacred scriptures of nearly every religion refer to God as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, as being all-powerful, all-knowing, and everywhere at the same time. Understanding what these concepts mean is more difficult than simply looking in a mirror, because there is no one on Earth who has those qualities. These concepts are more difficult to grasp because they are abstractions; to better understand them we need to relate them to things within our own experience through the use of analogy, as great literature and poetry and the Baha’i teachings do:
These human conditions may be likened to the matrix of the mother from which a child is to be born into the spacious outer world. At first the infant finds it very difficult to reconcile itself to its new existence. It cries as if not wishing to be separated from its narrow abode and imagining that life is restricted to that limited space. It is reluctant to leave its home, but nature forces it into this world. Having come into its new conditions, it finds that it has passed from darkness into a sphere of radiance; from gloomy and restricted surroundings it has been transferred to a spacious and delightful environment. Its nourishment was the blood of the mother; now it finds delicious food to enjoy. Its new life is filled with brightness and beauty; it looks with wonder and delight upon the mountains, meadows and fields of green, the rivers and fountains, the wonderful stars; it breathes the life-quickening atmosphere; and then it praises God for its release from the confinement of its former condition and attainment to the freedom of a new realm. This analogy expresses the relation of the temporal world to the life hereafter—the transition of the soul of man from darkness and uncertainty to the light and reality of the eternal Kingdom. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 47.
Although describing an abstraction by analogy has its limitations, parables and allegories, similes and metaphors are our only means of understanding abstract things that are beyond our realm of experience.
For example, the sacred scriptures of many Faiths often describe God as a father figure. This is easily understood by people who belong to a social structure based upon patriarchy. It is something familiar to us. Yet we can also see beyond this kind of analogy, and realize that God is neither male nor female, and we can at least begin to imagine God without gender.
As we mature, we learn to see the inherent limitations of our previous understandings. When we were children and heard that God has the whole world in His hands, it was reasonable for us to assume that God was big, really big. Later, when we learned the difference between figurative analogies and the literal meanings of words, we came to understand that God is neither big nor little, that God has no size.
Male and female, big and little are like the concepts of up and down. They only apply to the physical universe. The reality of God is infinitely greater than these. Analogies do, however, serve a purpose. They are the starting points of understanding. Here in the physical world, we begin a process of learning and discovery that will last as long as the soul endures, through all of eternity. In that process, we learn to grow nearer to the spiritual beauty we find in our conception of the Creator:
Nearness to God is possible through devotion to Him, through entrance into the Kingdom and service to humanity; it is attained by unity with mankind and through loving-kindness to all; it is dependent upon investigation of truth, acquisition of praiseworthy virtues, service in the cause of universal peace and personal sanctification. In a word, nearness to God necessitates sacrifice of self, severance and the giving up of all to Him. Nearness is likeness. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 148.
In the Baha’i teachings, Baha’u’llah tells us that God is ultimately unknowable, that we can never fully comprehend our Creator. God cannot be defined by anyone but God. We can know something of His creation, but no matter how much we understand, God is still infinitely greater than the thoughts of the whole of creation.
This is an important lesson in humility for us. As witnessed everywhere in nature, lesser things can never understand greater things. Rocks can’t comprehend the nature of plants, plants can’t comprehend the nature of animals, animals can’t comprehend the nature of humans, and humans can’t comprehend the nature of God. But still we are placed on Earth for a purpose, and we have always needed ways to contemplate our Creator. With their lives, their teachings and their actions, the prophets of God teach us about the qualities, or attributes, of God, enabling us to transcend some of the limitations of definitions and analogies.
O thou who art turning thy face towards God! Close thine eyes to all things else, and open them to the realm of the All-Glorious. Ask whatsoever thou wishest of Him alone; seek whatsoever thou seekest from Him alone. With a look He granteth a hundred thousand hopes, with a glance He healeth a hundred thousand incurable ills, with a nod He layeth balm on every wound, with a glimpse He freeth the hearts from the shackles of grief. He doeth as He doeth, and what recourse have we? He carrieth out His Will, He ordaineth what He pleaseth. Then better for thee to bow down thy head in submission, and put thy trust in the All-Merciful Lord. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 51.
Rely upon God. Trust in Him. Praise Him, and call Him continually to mind. He verily turneth trouble into ease, and sorrow into solace, and toil into utter peace. He verily hath dominion over all things. – Ibid., p. 178.