We’ve all watched birds fly freely through the sky, and wished we could be, as the old saying goes, “free as a bird.”
We all want freedom, but the Baha’i teachings say that human freedom differs dramatically from the freedom of any animal:
The animal creation is captive to matter, God has given freedom to man. The animal cannot escape the law of nature, whereas man may control it, for he, containing nature, can rise above it. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 38.
Animals live entirely under the laws of nature. No bird could possibly free itself from its natural instincts—to find food, to build nests, to reproduce and then to die. Those laws, rather than creating real freedom, constrain, govern and limit the animal’s responses to only what their natural instincts will allow.
The human spirit, because of its freedom to transcend the natural world, occupies a higher realm than the animal spirit. It can soar past the limitations of instincts and transcend the natural world.
Human freedom, then, is spiritual freedom. Nature holds our bodies captive, but our spirits transcend nature. The human mind and soul can fly beyond the bonds of nature.
From a Baha’i perspective, the human reality has two major components—one from our lower animal nature and one from our divine, higher nature. When we can manage to detach from the bond of nature, we can set ourselves free. That’s the difference between real freedom and the simple liberty to do what we please, according to the Baha’i teachings:
Know ye that the embodiment of liberty and its symbol is the animal. That which beseemeth man is submission unto such restraints as will protect him from his own ignorance, and guard him against the harm of the mischief-maker. Liberty causeth man to overstep the bounds of propriety, and to infringe on the dignity of his station. It debaseth him to the level of extreme depravity and wickedness. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 159.
In order to constrain our body from simply following its baser animal instincts, God gives us spiritual teachings to follow. Those essential teachings remain the same throughout all religious revelation—love, kindness, compassion, etc. Their purpose? To teach us to consciously and voluntarily limit the liberty and the natural instincts of our animal nature, so we can be guided to find true spiritual freedom.
The Baha’i teachings encourage everyone, through turning our minds and souls toward God, to live in the freedom of the spiritual realm, and learn its real meaning:
True liberty consisteth in man’s submission unto My commandments, little as ye know it. Were men to observe that which We have sent down unto them from the Heaven of Revelation, they would, of a certainty, attain unto perfect liberty. Happy is the man that hath apprehended the Purpose of God in whatever He hath revealed from the Heaven of His Will, that pervadeth all created things. – Ibid.
Living in that spiritual realm, the Baha’i teachings say, means searching for the truth and following it. What difference does it make whether we follow the truth or not? Abdu’l-Baha said:
Baha’u’llah appeared in Persia at a time when the darkness of ignorance enveloped the East, and there was no trace of human love and fellowship. Through divine education and the power of the breaths of the Holy Spirit He so refined the souls of the Persians who followed Him that they attained a station of highest intelligence and reflected the attributes of perfection to the world. Whereas formerly they were ignorant, they became knowing; they were weak, they became mighty; they were without integrity, they became conscientious; they were hostile toward all men, they developed love for humanity; they were spiritually negligent, they became mindful and attentive; they were sleeping, they became awakened; they disagreed among themselves, they united in love and are now striving to render service to the world of humankind. Service to God and mankind is their sole intention; they have neither wish nor desire save that which is in accordance with the good pleasure of God. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 331.
Spiritual sunlight—the nourishment we receive from acknowledging and following the Word of God—helps us to gradually become knowing, strong and conscientious. When we absorb the power of those rays of light, we develop love for humanity, become mindful and attentive, and strive to render service to the world of humankind. Abdu’l-Baha also said:
The will and plan of God is that each individual member of humankind shall become illumined like unto a lamp, radiant with all the destined virtues of humanity, leading his fellow creatures out of natural darkness into the heavenly light. Therein rests the virtue and glory of the world of humanity. This is the perfection, honor and glory of man; otherwise, man is an animal and without differentiation from the creatures of that lower kingdom. – Ibid.