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I’ve been reading the bestselling book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari—but I find myself questioning some of the author’s key premises.
This well-written book is teaching me a lot about different periods in human history, although it has a fairly dim view of the spiritual underpinnings of that history.
Harari posits, for example, that all the stories told by humankind–including about God and Christianity–are just fictions. He further distinguishes between the “objective reality of rivers, trees, and lions” and the “imagined reality of gods, nations, and corporations.” I understand where the author is going with his emphasis on the myths and stories that have shaped human civilizations, but I give more credence to a divine plan and its influence in human affairs.
At any rate, the book got me thinking about the reality of “fictions” vs. “objective realities,” and what the Baha’i Faith has to say about these topics. The Baha’i writings define this entire physical world as the grand fiction in many respects:
O thou handmaid aflame with the fire of God’s love! Grieve thou not over the troubles and hardships of this nether world, nor be thou glad in times of ease and comfort, for both shall pass away. This present life is even as a swelling wave, or a mirage, or drifting shadows. Could ever a distorted image on the desert serve as refreshing waters? No, by the Lord of Lords! Never can reality and the mere semblance of reality be one, and wide is the difference between fancy and fact, between truth and the phantom thereof. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 177-178.
The excerpt goes on to say:
Know thou that the Kingdom is the real world, and this nether place is only its shadow stretching out. A shadow hath no life of its own; its existence is only a fantasy, and nothing more; it is but images reflected in water, and seeming as pictures to the eye. – Ibid.
The Spiritual Meaning of ‘the Matrix’
These passages remind me a little of the science fiction movie The Matrix (1999) where the reality perceived by most humans is really a simulated reality controlled by sentient machines. The movie itself is very dystopian, but it does encourage audiences to think along some philosophical lines about the nature of existence. Are we, in other words, living in some kind of a hologram?
The above quotes from the Baha’i writings are more hopeful to me, but also imply that this physical world is largely the illusion—essentially a mirror of the spiritual world, where the true reality exists, and not the other way around.
If we considered our spiritual reality as the more definitive one, how would it change our world views and our behaviors? The Baha’i teachings offer some insights:
O ye loved ones of God! Know ye that the world is even as a mirage rising over the sands that the thirsty mistaketh for water. The wine of this world is but a vapour in the desert, its pity and compassion but toil and trouble, the repose it proffereth only weariness and sorrow. Abandon it to those who belong to it, and turn your faces unto the Kingdom of your Lord the All-Merciful, that His grace and bounty may cast their dawning splendours over you … – Ibid., p. 186.
Our spiritual reality, Abdul’-Baha further clarified, is:
… an eternal reality, an indestructible reality, a reality belonging to the divine, supernatural kingdom; a reality whereby the world is illumined, a reality which grants unto man eternal life. – The Baha’i World, Volume 4, p. 121.
Of course, most of us can’t see and touch the spiritual dimension in the same way that we can see and touch tangible things in this plane of existence. Thus, some would claim that only physical things exist.
Then there are those ancient philosophers, religious leaders, artists, and even some modern physicists who have disputed that line of thinking. According to quantum physics, for example, subatomic matter exists as a probability. What we see in the material world is not as real as we once assumed. Fascinating new discoveries like the Higgs Field–an invisible energy field—are now thought to exist in every region of the universe, although the source is unknown. Would it be so farfetch’d, then, to claim that a spiritual field exists which holds all things together?
Along these lines, Baha’u’llah wrote:
There can be no doubt whatever that if for one moment the tide of His [God’s] mercy and grace were to be withheld from the world, it would completely perish. – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 68.
This statement brings me back to the concept of a matrix, which is defined as a surrounding medium or structure. We all live in an encompassing reality that our time/space framework doesn’t allow us to perceive, but that, nonetheless, remains the glue that binds all things together. If we thought of our existence in these ways, perhaps we would spend less time feeling lost in the land of the shadows and not be quite so dismayed by the “troubles and hardships of this nether world.”