Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey” is one of my all-time favorites – and by critical acclaim, one of the greatest movies ever made. Does it have a spiritual component?
I think I was about ten years old when I first encountered it, watching the greater part of it played on television in one of the several houses in which I grew up. My father worked as a U.S. Forest Service ranger, so we relocated about every two years during the earlier part of my childhood.
I remember being enthralled by the vivid imagery, even though my young mind couldn’t grasp much of the meaning. Kubrick was notoriously meticulous in his approach to filmmaking, and the sheer beauty of his movies is widely considered unparalleled even today.
I watched the film again about 10 years later, during my first years of college, when I hadn’t yet learned of the Baha’i Faith. Since declaring myself a Baha’i in 1990, I’ve enjoyed several more viewings – most recently, my first time seeing it on the big screen, when one of our local movie theaters featured its 50th anniversary re-release.
A nearly impossibly complex and layered film, it seems that no two critics have reached the same conclusions over the decades regarding its themes and meanings. Indeed, Kubrick purposefully left many of its key elements vague, prodding viewers to seek their own interpretations.
Still, one theme seems universally agreed upon: the film’s black, rectangular objects called “monoliths” – which might have another force or beings behind them – influence humanity’s development throughout the film. The first monolith appears before a band of pre-hominids during the film’s opening sequence. Shortly thereafter, one member of the group has the epiphany to start using an animal’s femur as a tool/weapon, and his band begins to dominate their environment – hunting for food and chasing a rival group of hominids away from the area’s precious sole watering hole – taking humanity’s first evolutionary steps toward a complex, technological species.
At the end of the film, one of the main characters, astronaut Dave Bowman, appears to be pulled in to a monolith at the moment of his biological death, only to reemerge as an infant-like, yet incredibly advanced being commonly called “the star child.”
As a Baha’i, the theme of humanity being helped along by a greater outside influence and ultimately evolving to a higher form, resonates deeply with me.
To explain that connection briefly, the Baha’i Faith acknowledges the existence of God, with a theology I would describe as practically agnostic – because the Baha’i teachings say the knowledge of God is beyond any human comprehension, grasp or understanding. However, Baha’is do not understand God as disengaged – quite the contrary. In fact, the Baha’i teachings say that the Creator regularly guides humanity through a series of spiritual messengers.
Over the ages, those messengers have educated humanity, and that education has directly caused our spiritual evolution. The Baha’i writings refer to these messengers as the prophets and “manifestations of God.”
Some of the more commonly-known ones include the Buddha, Abraham, Moses, Zoroaster, Christ and Muhammad. Baha’is recognize Baha’u’llah (which means “The Glory of God”), who appeared in 19th century Persia, as the manifestation of God for our currently emerging age – best described as the age of humanity’s maturity.
So I see in the Baha’i teachings the core theme of an outside influencer – God, through His manifestations – guiding humanity along an ever-advancing arc of development.
Similar to the symbolic monoliths in “2001,” those manifestations have a tangible presence on the physical plane, but remain essentially mysterious, beyond our full understanding. For example – although the manifestations appear among us in human form, as Christ and Baha’u’llah did, I can think of at least two key distinctions between them and us.
Humans have a deep desire for knowledge, but we acquire our knowledge. Moreover, the Baha’i Faith teaches that while the human soul has no end, and survives the demise of the physical body, it does have a beginning, coming into existence at the moment of conception. By contrast, the Baha’i teachings say that the manifestations of God possess innate knowledge and have no end or beginning; they pre-exist in the spiritual realm before appearing on the earthly plane.
Unlike 2001’s monoliths, those messengers actively engage with humanity – as teachers, divine physicians for our spiritual ills, saviors, redeemers and loving guides. Their influence reaches far beyond their earthly missions. In fact, their power and influence grows immensely after they depart the physical realm. They also transmit the most immediate and powerful proof of God’s existence and mercy.
As Baha’u’llah wrote:
“The door of the knowledge of the Ancient of Days being thus closed in the face of all beings, the Source of infinite grace, according to His saying, ‘His grace hath transcended all things; My grace hath encompassed them all,’ hath caused those luminous Gems of Holiness to appear out of the realm of the spirit, in the noble form of the human temple, and be made manifest unto all men, that they may impart unto the world the mysteries of the unchangeable Being, and tell of the subtleties of His imperishable Essence.
These sanctified Mirrors, these Daysprings of ancient glory, are, one and all, the Exponents on earth of Him Who is the central Orb of the universe, its Essence and ultimate Purpose. From Him proceed their knowledge and power; from Him is derived their sovereignty. The beauty of their countenance is but a reflection of His image, and their revelation a sign of His deathless glory. They are the Treasuries of Divine knowledge, and the Repositories of celestial wisdom. Through them is transmitted a grace that is infinite, and by them is revealed the Light that can never fade. – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 47.
All of this provides a compelling and logical explanation for how we – a seemingly small, frail and unimpressive species – have managed to come as far as we have. As a species, humans have mastered nearly the entire planet and thrived in various harsh environments, reaching the point of taking our first tentative steps beyond the Earth’s cradle. The guidance and influence of the manifestations has enabled us to develop the sciences and to discipline our powers of perception and our sense of wonder toward great works of art across numerous mediums – including feature films.
But despite the progress we’ve made so far, our continuing need for moral and ethical guidance has become evident as well – in our own personal failings and shortcomings, as well as our collective atrocities, such as war, genocide and environmental destruction.
Still, I see through the Baha’i teachings the hopeful, optimistic possibility reflected at 2001’s climax – our continued, collective development toward an entirely new order of being. It will happen, the Baha’i writings promise, not so much in dramatic physical form, as depicted in the final scene of Kubrick’s masterpiece, but in a fundamental spiritual and intellectual manner. We could finally realize our quest to grow from brutish primates to angelic beings, with the influence and guidance of Baha’u’llah’s new message of love, unity and peace.