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Let’s talk about spiritual knowledge.
The Baha’i teachings say that when our minds, hearts, and actions are illumined by knowledge of God’s message for this day, we can become empowered champions of social and spiritual progress. Two quotations of Baha’u’llah, the prophet-founder of the Baha’i Faith—both drawn from a single passage discussing God’s generosity to humanity—illustrate this idea:
First and foremost among these favors, which the Almighty hath conferred upon man, is the gift of understanding. His purpose in conferring such a gift is none other except to enable His creature to know and recognize the one true God—exalted be His glory. This gift giveth man the power to discern the truth in all things, leadeth him to that which is right, and helpeth him to discover the secrets of creation. – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 194.
After mentioning the gift of understanding, Baha’u’llah turns to a gift which comes from outside our own selves:
These gifts are inherent in man himself. That which is preeminent above all other gifts, is incorruptible in nature, and pertaineth to God Himself, is the gift of Divine Revelation. Every bounty conferred by the Creator upon man, be it material or spiritual, is subservient unto this. – Ibid., p. 195.
Whether it’s the senses, the mind, or the soul, each of God’s gifts enables us to know. It makes sense then, in the teachings of Baha’u’llah, that the core desire of the spiritual seeker should be the development of spiritual knowledge. But what kind of spiritual knowledge is this? What is this knowledge of?
First, it’s important to clarify that this spiritual knowledge doesn’t just concern facts, formulas, and other bits of information. Instead, spiritual knowledge seats itself in the heart, and cannot be put into a box.
Second, this knowledge isn’t just attainable in extraordinary moments of meditation and contemplation. It has to do with our involvement in the world as we know it in an everyday sense. It is sharpened the more it influences and is influenced by our acts of service to each other and to the wider society.
Third, this knowledge isn’t just personal acceptance of some religious claim, like that our souls continue to progress after life in this world, or that God’s essence is incomprehensible to humans. Belief in doctrine can be a part of religion. But on its own, belief is incomplete if there isn’t a process of understanding to support it. Mere belief imitates knowledge—but it isn’t knowledge, because it doesn’t necessarily involve true understanding.
A close reading of Baha’u’llah’s Book of Certitude shows that this knowledge relates in large part to God’s prophets, those historical figures known to most people as the founders of the world’s major religions. Through the gift of a divine power, they exemplify God’s attributes and reveal His will and intention for humanity. Their words form the basis for true understanding of the will of God.
Baha’u’llah taught a deep and thorough understanding of the prophets’ relationship to God, their own human nature, the way they have been treated by the people around them, and the dissimilarity of their teachings with the established religious knowledge in circulation at that time—all vital themes for attaining a familiarity with God’s involvement in human society. Spiritual understanding grows out of our love for God’s messengers. These ideas received some of Baha’u’llah’s most extended attention in the Book of Certitude, an essential Baha’i book for becoming a confirmed and effective seeker of God’s will.
In his writings and life, Baha’u’llah showed great respect for the life of the mind and its connection to the spiritual progress of the individual. Though he was highly critical of the religious scholars of his day, their academic pursuits, and the arrogance with which they spoke and acted, he always framed their problem as an issue of too little knowledge, too much idle imitation, and insufficient effort in truly understanding the meaning of scripture and the life of the spirit. He wanted those with a reputation for knowledge to have more of the right kind of knowledge.
Baha’u’llah’s teachings reveal a dynamic vision of spirituality. Seekers reach higher levels of understanding by surpassing the limitations of each stage of spiritual development. The Baha’i teachings also value the contributions of scientific inquiry, because one kind of knowledge relates to the soul and the influence of the Holy Spirit; and the other kind of knowledge relates to observable material conditions. They are different, but complementary:
There is no contradiction between true religion and science. When a religion is opposed to science it becomes mere superstition: that which is contrary to knowledge is ignorance.
How can a man believe to be a fact that which science has proved to be impossible? If he believes in spite of his reason, it is rather ignorant superstition than faith. The true principles of all religions are in conformity with the teachings of science.
The messages God has revealed to humanity not only tell humanity what to do—they also show us what to desire. Baha’u’llah has taught us to crave in our inmost souls the illumination of knowledge and understanding.