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The prophets, messengers, or manifestations of God assist us most apparently and observably by intervening periodically in human history.
When these divine messengers appear, their teachings alter the course of what would be yet another expression of the law of entropy without divine guidance—that is, humankind descending into the abyss of appetites, warfare, and eventual extinction.
This direct intervention, accompanied by an even more influential infusion of spiritual renewal, has the function of updating laws and institutions, reorganizing or reinventing appropriate paradigms of social structure, reaffirming and refining laws of personal hygiene and comportment, and, most important of all, articulating an ever more expansive and complete description of reality, as well as our individual and collective relationship to reality.
The end result of this second means by which the two expressions of reality are bridged fosters and nurtures the central objective of human society as a whole: the creation of what Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, calls an “ever-advancing civilization.”
Finally, the prophets and manifestations continue to guide and assist physical creation after their ascent from the confines of an earthly persona. After that ascension, the manifestations still remain for us the most complete expression of the Creator, and the essential intermediaries between us and the unknowable essence of God. However, since the powers of the manifestation are infinitely beyond our own station and understanding, this relationship of entering “the Presence of God”—via our knowledge of and love for God’s messengers—should not be thought of as ever being or static, as constant or complete.
We are naturally most fully aware of the manifestation operating in this second stage of the function of an intermediary. In this capacity, in which the prophet appears as an ordinary human being among us, those divine messengers perfectly manifest all the virtues of God and, once unveiled or unconcealed, they openly reveal that station—articulating a more expansive description of reality together with specific laws, ordinances, and admonitions about human behavior, and specific guidance about how humankind can collectively and progressively construct a social edifice to befit the evolving spiritual and intellectual conditions of the body politic.
In this second stage, the divine manifestation can correctly be said to represent for us the most complete expression of godliness we can possibly comprehend during our own incarnate or associational stage of existence.
Stage Two: Love While We Live
With their physical appearance in our material world, the prophets and messengers of God have a dual purpose, as explained in Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah:
God’s purpose in sending His Prophets unto men is twofold. The first is to liberate the children of men from the darkness of ignorance, and guide them to the light of true understanding. The second is to ensure the peace and tranquillity of mankind, and provide all the means by which they can be established.
What we may not understand completely is that these specialized beings are manifestations prior to their birth and incarnation, and that they are also, in this second stage, quite aware of their station and function from the beginning of their consciousness after they associate with a human persona. Abdu’l-Baha explains that difficult-to-understand reality in his book Some Answered Questions:
From the beginning, that sanctified Reality is undoubtedly aware of the secret of existence, and from childhood the signs of greatness are clearly manifested in Him. How then could He fail, in spite of such bounties and perfections, to be conscious of His own station?
The manifestation challenges our understanding of that elevated station with passages that sometimes seem enigmatic. For example, many people have trouble recognizing this capacity or consciousness when the messengers or manifestations seem to indicate some critical point of change in their awareness or station. In his Tablet to Nasiri’d-Din Shah, (the king of Persia at the time) Baha’u’llah states that he “was but a man like others” until he received the first intimation of his revelation as he lay bound in chains in the Black Pit of Tehran (the Siyah-Chal):
O King! I was but a man like others, asleep upon My couch, when lo, the breezes of the All-Glorious were wafted over Me, and taught Me the knowledge of all that hath been. This thing is not from Me, but from One Who is Almighty and All-Knowing. And He bade Me lift up My voice between earth and heaven, and for this there befell Me what hath caused the tears of every man of understanding to flow. The learning current amongst men I studied not; their schools I entered not. Ask of the city wherein I dwelt, that thou mayest be well assured that I am not of them who speak falsely. This is but a leaf which the winds of the will of thy Lord, the Almighty, the All-Praised, have stirred.
Certainly on first reading and at face value, such a statement might seem to depict the manifestation as an ordinary human being who suddenly and unexpectedly becomes transformed or inspired by God. The same conclusion could be inferred from scriptural passages in the Bible and the Qur’an by Christ and Muhammad, from passages about the transforming experience of Moses when he encountered the Burning Bush, and from the Buddha when he became enlightened as he meditated beneath the Bo Tree.
Some might wish to view this ostensible point of change as an outright subterfuge to explain why the prophet suddenly possesses a power which has heretofore not been made manifest. Others perceive in these passages the description of the point at which the manifestation is given the sign by God that he is to begin doing the very task for which he has assumed human form. Abdu’l-Baha makes it abundantly clear, in an authoritative explication of the passage in Baha’u’llah’s Tablet to Nasiri’d-Din Shah from Some Answered Questions, that these are not points of ontological change, nor are they points at which the manifestation suddenly becomes aware of the station he has been ordained to occupy:
Briefly, the Manifestations of God have ever been and will ever be Luminous Realities, and no change or alteration ever takes place in Their essence. At most, before Their revelation They are still and silent, like one who is asleep, and after Their revelation They are eloquent and effulgent, like one who is awake.
Even though the manifestations choose to limit the expression of their powers while they abide in the second stage of their appearance in the material realm, this limitation is one of choice. For example, all holy messengers have conscious awareness of whatever they want to know. A manifestation of God is, according to Shoghi Effendi, “omniscient at will.” In Some Answered Questions, Abdu’l-Baha provides an interesting explanation of the reason which the prophet possesses this inherent knowledge of reality in very specific terms:
Since those sanctified realities, the universal Manifestations of God, encompass all created things both in their essence and in their attributes, since They transcend and discover all existing realities, and since They are cognizant of all things, it follows that Their knowledge is divine and not acquired—that is, it is a heavenly grace and a divine discovery.
The distinct ontology of the prophets during their incarnate human state logically derives from their inherently distinct nature whereby they manifest of all the attributes of God. Furthermore, one of these attributes or powers is power itself—they are omnipotent. Even though they carefully restrain themselves from overt demonstrations of this capacity in order that humankind will recognize them for spiritual reasons and not some miraculous or sensational actions, they are literally able to do whatever they think appropriate, even as Baha’u’llah observed in his Most Holy Book:
He Who is the Dawning-place of God’s Cause hath no partner in the Most Great Infallibility. He it is Who, in the kingdom of creation, is the Manifestation of ‘He doeth whatsoever He willeth’.
This series of essays is adapted from John Hatcher’s address to the 2005 Association for Baha’i Studies Conference titled The Huri of Love, which comprised the 23rd Hasan M. Balyuzi Memorial Lecture.