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Divine philosophy asserts categorically that we can’t really know the essence of anything.
We can understand the attributes, qualities and characteristics of the mineral, the vegetable, the animal, the human, and hence certainly of the divine—but we can never understand their inmost essence. We can only know through the observation and understanding of those attributes, qualities, manifestations or existences. How then is it possible for man to know God?
The Baha’i teachings say it’s impossible:
Then how could it be possible for a contingent reality, that is, man, to understand the nature of that pre-existent Essence, the Divine Being? The difference in station between man and the Divine Reality is thousands upon thousands of times greater than the difference between the vegetable and animal. And that which the human being would conjure up in his mind is but the fanciful image of his human condition, it doth not encompass God’s reality but rather is encompassed by it. That is, man graspeth his own illusory conceptions, but the Reality of Divinity can never be grasped: It, Itself, encompasseth all created things, and all created things are in Its grasp. That Divinity which man doth imagine for himself existeth only in his mind, not in truth. Man, however, existeth both in his mind and in truth; thus man is greater than that fanciful reality which he is able to imagine. The furthermost limits of this bird of clay are these: he can flutter along for some short distance, into the endless vast; but he can never soar upward to the Sun in the high heavens. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 46-47.
How do we know God? If we can’t know the essence of anything, much less our Creator, how do we gain any knowledge at all about the spiritual realm and our place in it? The Baha’i teachings say:
We know Him by His attributes. We know Him by His signs. We know Him by His names … If we wish to come in touch with the reality of divinity, we do so by recognizing its phenomena, its attributes and traces which are widespread in the universe. All things in the world of phenomena are expressive of that one reality. Its lights are shining, its heat is manifest, its power is expressive and its education or training resplendent everywhere. What proof could there be greater than that of its functioning, or its attributes which are manifest? – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 422.
It is clear, then, that the reality of God is revealed in His perfections… – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha., p. 51.
How then can the reality of man which is accidental, ever comprehend the Reality of God which is eternal? It is self-evidently an impossibility. Hence we can observe the traces and attributes of God which are resplendent in all phenomena and shining as the sun at midday, and know surely that these emanate from an infinite source. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, pp. 422-423.
If we gaze at the natural world and all the people in it, the Baha’i writings tell us, we can find “the traces and attributes of God” everywhere:
When we examine the world and the souls of men, the perspicuous signs of the perfections of the Divinity appear clear and manifest, for the realities of all things attest to the existence of a universal Reality. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 255.
So we human beings can discern the attributes, the signs and the perfections of God in all created things.
In the Baha’i teachings, then, we find the startling realization that the traditional concepts of God, both current and historical, are the idols of our own imaginings. We find that we can only know the attributes of things, not the things in themselves. We find that our senses do not inform us of the existence of God. Hence, Abdu’l-Baha has effectively devalued and discarded the traditional crutches for belief in God—the images which we have conceived of for ourselves or imitated from our families and neighbors; the erroneous idea that some of us had that we understood the essence of reality, to which we gave the name “God;” the contemporary conviction that we can perceive through our senses everything that really and truly exists, and that any existence outside of such sensory perception is purely imaginary.
What can replace our false ideas, fancies and misapprehensions about God, then?
We can replace them with a firm and fearless affirmation that the attributes and the perfections of God are revealed in all of His creations, that we can know these attributes by studying those creations, and furthermore, that the perfect manifestation of those attributes is accessible to each one of us. We can access that manifestation of God throughout human history, in the person of the founders of most of the world’s great Faiths: Abraham, Krishna, Moses, Buddha, Christ, Muhammad and now Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith.