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Have you ever known a really smart dog? No, this isn’t a bad joke about God—bear with me for a minute, and you’ll see the connection.
I grew up around animals, and throughout my life I’ve been the lucky recipient of the companionship and love of several of the finest and most wonderful examples of the canine species.
Now I realize that all cultures around the world aren’t fond of dogs. Some people believe dogs are unclean or vicious; some even use dogs as food. But I was raised in a part of the world—the Pacific Northwest—where “man’s best friend” had many admirable traits that people put to good use.
The dogs my family owned while I grew up helped us put dinner on the table. Excellent hunters, trackers and birddogs, they all took part in feeding my parents and their five kids. Our dogs guarded and tended the smaller children, and their protective instincts often saved the little ones from danger. They could herd sheep and cattle, warn us by barking at poisonous snakes, even sense an imminent threat from other humans. But mostly I remember my dogs as companions—kind, loving creatures who, it seemed, could feel the emotions I did, and comfort me by actually returning the attention I gave them. I even felt, at one point when I was about eight years old, that my dog Jinx understood me better than anyone.
So if you’ve had a good dog, you already know how a close human/canine bond can develop.
But no matter what, the world’s smartest dog can’t become a person, or do what a person can do. No animal, not even the most intelligent ape or dolphin or elephant or golden retriever, has ever built a city or invented a machine or created a lasting work of art or written a great book. No animal can ever accomplish what people can, because animals are captives of the natural world, and human beings can, because of their intellects and their spirits, transcend the laws of nature.
The Baha’i teachings say that comparison—the world of intelligent animals and the world of people—can help us understand the difference between the station of humanity and the station of God:
…the reality of the Godhead is beyond the grasp of the mind. When thou dost carefully consider this matter, thou wilt see that a lower plane can never comprehend a higher. The mineral kingdom, for example, which is lower, is precluded from comprehending the vegetable kingdom; for the mineral, any such understanding would be utterly impossible. In the same way, no matter how far the vegetable kingdom may develop, it will achieve no conception of the animal kingdom, and any such comprehension at its level would be unthinkable, for the animal occupieth a plane higher than that of the vegetable: this tree cannot conceive of hearing and sight. And the animal kingdom, no matter how far it may evolve, can never become aware of the reality of the intellect, which discovereth the inner essence of all things, and comprehendeth those realities which cannot be seen; for the human plane as compared with that of the animal is very high. And although these beings all co-exist in the contingent world, in each case the difference in their stations precludeth their grasp of the whole; for no lower degree can understand a higher, such comprehension being impossible.
The higher plane, however, understandeth the lower. The animal, for instance, comprehendeth the mineral and vegetable, the human understandeth the planes of the animal, vegetable and mineral. But the mineral cannot possibly understand the realms of man. And notwithstanding the fact that all these entities co-exist in the phenomenal world, even so, no lower degree can ever comprehend a higher.
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 vegetable and animal. And that which a 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. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 46-47.
In other words: the God we imagine only exists in our minds.
We can contemplate the enormity and complexity of the known universe and try with all our might to fathom its Maker, but ultimately every attempt will fall short. To use an analogy from the Baha’i teachings, the art can never understand the artist:
Consider the relation between the craftsman and his handiwork, between the painter and his painting. Can it ever be maintained that the work their hands have produced is the same as themselves? – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 336.
Using this understanding as an obvious, axiomatic fact—that the creature cannot ever comprehend the Creator—how can we think about, approach, or even worship God? How can we begin to seek that divine mystery? If we’re unable, by our very nature, to perceive or discern the Great Spirit, how can we worship what we can’t even grasp? How can we picture God?
We’ll consider that essential paradox in the next essay in this series.