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Only divine love bestows the keys of knowledge. – Rimbaud
The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection. – Michelangelo
No great man ever existed who did not enjoy some portion of divine inspiration. – Cicero
So far in this series of essays we’ve looked at the three traditional ways of knowing the truth—the senses, the intellect and authority. Now let’s move away from the territory controlled by the body and the mind and delve, for a moment, into the realm of the human heart.
I don’t mean that beating cardiac pump in your chest, either.
Instead, I mean the deep seat of our feelings and emotions, the unknown place inside each of us that can awaken us to a higher level of inspiration and a more mystical calling. Most of us experience the inspirational power of our heart when we fall in love, when we feel our connection to our families, and when we have empathy for the suffering of others. But our hearts can also feel inspired by great art, by moving music, by our own intuition, by the beauty of an ideal, by the creative force of example.
Do you remember the last time you felt really inspired?
Maybe you saw someone do something you admired. Perhaps you took part in a unified, joyous act of service for others, or created a work of art, overtaken by what the Greeks called furor poeticus, the “divine frenzy” of artistic inspiration. Whatever inspired you, it touched not only your mind but your emotions. Your heart felt that inspiration and seemed to expand, to increase its receptivity, to enlarge its potential. This sort of inspiration can serve as a powerful door to the truth—a truth far above mere factual information, and much more profound than any facts, logic or reason might produce.
Poets, painters, philosophers and prophets all call it divine inspiration.
Many artists, writers, makers, creators and inventors have hailed this kind of inspiration as the ultimate way of truly knowing. When inspiration strikes, it does feel that way—as if you’ve plugged your mind and heart into a vast stimulating sea of new knowledge, wisdom and insight. Inspiration has the power to move us, not just from an intellectual point of view, but from our hearts, our feelings and our innermost sense of the truth.
The Baha’i teachings praise and exalt that kind of inspiration, but also warn us about its counterpoint:
Know verily that Knowledge is of two kinds: Divine and Satanic. The one welleth out from the fountain of divine inspiration; the other is but a reflection of vain and obscure thoughts. The source of the former is God Himself; the motive-force of the latter the whisperings of selfish desire. – Baha’u’llah, The Book of Certitude, p. 69.
Baha’is definitely don’t believe in hell, Satan or the devil–but the Baha’i writings do use those terms in symbolic ways to indicate the lower nature we all have within us. That fact makes human inspiration just as unreliable as the senses, the intellect and authority. Abdu’l-Baha described the fourth way of knowing, “upheld by religionists and metaphysicians who say that the source and channel of all human penetration into the unknown is through inspiration,” as an ultimately unreliable path to truth:
The fourth criterion… is inspiration through which it is claimed the reality of knowledge is attainable. What is inspiration? It is the influx of the human heart. But what are satanic promptings which afflict mankind? They are the influx of the heart also. How shall we differentiate between them? The question arises: How shall we know whether we are following inspiration from God or satanic promptings of the human soul?
Briefly, the point is that in the human material world of phenomena these four [the sense perceptions, reason, authority and inspiration] are the only existing criteria or avenues of knowledge, and all of them are faulty and unreliable. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 26.
If four avenues of human access to knowledge exist, all of them imperfect, then what’s left? How can we be certain of anything? The Baha’i teachings suggest we take the final, fifth road to truth and knowledge:
…man does not possess any criterion of knowledge that can be relied upon. But the grace of the Holy Spirit is the true criterion regarding which there is no doubt or uncertainty. That grace consists in the confirmations of the Holy Spirit which are vouchsafed to man and through which certitude is attained. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 345.