How can the creatures understand the Creator?
Although describing an abstraction by analogy has its limitations, parables and allegories, similes and metaphors provide us with our only means of understanding abstract things that are beyond our realm of experience.
For example, God is often described as a father figure—an easily understood analogy 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. The Baha’i teachings explain how we learn to draw nearer to our 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.
Remembrance of God is like the rain and dew which bestow freshness and grace on flowers and hyacinths, revive them and cause them to acquire fragrance, redolence and renewed charm. … Strive thou, then, to praise and glorify God by night and by day, that thou mayest attain infinite freshness and beauty. – Abdu’l-Baha, from a tablet translated from the Persian.
Baha’u’llah taught 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 combined 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. 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:
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. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 178.
… that which leads to everlasting life, eternal honour, universal enlightenment, and true success and salvation is, first and foremost, the knowledge of God. It is that this knowledge takes precedence over every other knowledge and constitutes the greatest virtue of the human world. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 346.
The attributes of God are qualities that draw our attention to aspects of His interaction with us and all of creation. They are the traces of the essence of our Creator. These divine attributes appear within the prayers and sacred writings of all religions in various forms, where God is referred to as the Almighty, the Powerful, the Helper, the All-Merciful, the Bestower, the All-Bountiful, the All-Knowing, the All-Wise, the Forgiving, the Compassionate.
Contemplating these attributes one by one allows us to focus on a particular characteristic of our Creator and look deep within ourselves. We can examine our own sense of inner strength, helpfulness, mercy, generosity, bounty, knowledge, wisdom, forgiveness, compassion. These are potential qualities within all of us that reflect the attributes of God. They are, as Baha’u’llah explained, God’s image within us:
To give and to be generous are attributes of Mine; well is it with him that adorneth himself with My virtues. – Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, p. 39.
All together these qualities form the virtues all the great Faiths ask us to incorporate into our lives. We are familiar with many of these virtues: kindness, excellence, faithfulness, generosity, honesty, justice, love, reverence, and unity, to name only a few. These are qualities that the messengers and prophets of God have told us to strive to cultivate because they benefit our individual spiritual development. These virtues are also the firm ground on which successful families are built, and ultimately they form the moral foundations of society.
All is in the hands of God, and without Him there can be no health in us! – Ibid., p. 24.
… in truth, the fruit of human existence is the love of God, which is the spirit of life and grace everlasting. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 347.