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Here’s a central question for any spiritual seeker: What do I want?
Or, to put it another way, what am I striving for? Understanding what this question asks of us means making a major step on our spiritual journey.
So what do I personally want? I want everyone to have knowledge. I think that opens up the great path to a better world.
By this I don’t mean mere information, but rather a thoughtful familiarity with the connections between things. This knowledge is of two kinds. First, there is spiritual knowledge, which illuminates the life of the soul, and our relationships with others and with God. God has revealed the greatest catalysts for this kind of knowledge for humanity through his prophets and messengers. Second, we have material knowledge, based on observation of the tangible world, and which has arrived at its most advanced stage through the collective practice of the scientific method.
Whether knowledge be spiritual or material in character, it has a power that can move mountains. Without it, humanity would be just another species of primates, little different from chimpanzees or gorillas. But with its potential within us, humans are capable of the most remarkable things. The prophet Muhammad’s nephew, the Imam Ali, spoke favorably of it in this connection:
…knowledge is better than wealth, for knowledge guards you, while you must guard wealth; and wealth diminishes as it is spent, while knowledge increases as it is disbursed; and the results of wealth disappear with the disappearance of wealth.
When the Imam Ali says “knowledge increases as it is disbursed,” I think he hits upon something very important. As soon as we generate any insight, it can be shared, applied, and improved upon an unlimited number of times. Fortunes dissipate, and dynasties eventually fall, but the knowledge a civilization generates can remain just as sharp as ever, if skilled and intelligent individuals shelter it within themselves, pass it on to others, and renew it through sustained practice. Abdu’l-Baha, son of Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith, offers a similar idea as a standard for evaluating the condition of any society:
Consider carefully: all these highly varied phenomena, these concepts, this knowledge, these technical procedures and philosophical systems, these sciences, arts, industries and inventions—all are emanations of the human mind. Whatever people has ventured deeper into this shoreless sea, has come to excel the rest. The happiness and pride of a nation consist in this, that it should shine out like the sun in the high heaven of knowledge. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 2.
Between the Imam Ali and Abdu’l-Baha, we have a social vision that privileges the fruits of inquiry and discovery over the attainment of immediate power. In these passages and elsewhere, they urge us to prefer what is capable of benefiting humanity again and again; and dissuade us from pursuing what is unceasingly haunted by the shadow of its own loss.
To control a vital government ministry, to have the private fortune to invest in something transformative, to command a military capable of crushing a menacing enemy; each of these capabilities has an undeniable appeal. But reliance on such things carries jealousy and suspicion behind it at all times. The quest for power is almost never a generous enterprise, even when the goal is the well-being of all people. It demands of its participants an unyielding defensiveness of one’s tactical position. It breeds antagonism. It nurtures selfishness. It can turn upon itself.
The boundless power of knowledge suggests a different path. To spiritually transform individuals from all-around takers from community well-being into all-around contributors, to distinguish true from false explanations of social problems, to overcome technical impediments to practical solutions; these endeavors emphasize the value of knowledge. They benefit humanity no matter who applies them. They create opportunities where before there might have been none.
Knowledge is a driving force within us that propels social progress. The more I look at the Baha’i teachings, the more I see how pivotal knowledge is to Baha’u’llah’s vision of a spiritually and materially prosperous world civilization.