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Do you think of yourself as primarily a material person, or primarily a spiritual person?
If you’re more of a material person, you probably tend to focus on the outer world the senses can perceive—your natural instincts, your human drives and the physical world you encounter every day.
If you’re more of a spiritual person, you probably tend to focus on the inner world—your feelings and emotions, your intellectual life, the unseen but powerful reality of the human spirit.
Philosophers have named these two basic concepts materialism and idealism. Materialism (sometimes called physicalism) maintains that matter and the interactions that occur between matter make up the true reality of existence. Idealism (sometimes called spiritualism), on the other hand, concludes that the mind and the spirit constitute the fundamental basis of reality—that matter is secondary and less important.
The Baha’i teachings strike a balance between these two viewpoints, while emphasizing that the human reality is essentially spiritual:
As for the spiritual perfections they are man’s birthright and belong to him alone of all creation. Man is, in reality, a spiritual being, and only when he lives in the spirit is he truly happy. This spiritual longing and perception belongs to all men alike … – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 73.
Abdu’l-Baha spoke at length about this subject:
One of the strangest things witnessed is that the materialists of today are proud of their natural instincts and bondage. They state that nothing is entitled to belief and acceptance except that which is sensible or tangible. By their own statements they are captives of nature, unconscious of the spiritual world, uninformed of the divine Kingdom and unaware of heavenly bestowals. If this be a virtue, the animal has attained to it to a superlative degree … The animal would agree with the materialist in denying the existence of that which transcends the senses. If we admit that being limited to the plane of the senses is a virtue, the animal is indeed more virtuous than man, for it is entirely bereft of that which lies beyond … – The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 177.
Those who reject or ignore the realm beyond the senses, Abdu’l-Baha said, miss the most important part of human existence:
Therefore, if it be a perfection and virtue to be without knowledge of God and His Kingdom, the animals have attained the highest degree of excellence and proficiency. – Ibid., p. 262.
Often western culture, with its materialistic philosophical origins, “encourages the animal energies to proliferate,” Abdu’l-Baha explained. Referring to his visit to the city of Paris, Abdu’l-Baha said that “most of the scholars, professors and learned men proved to be materialists.” (Ibid., p. 16.) Likewise, after visiting cities in the United States, Abdu’l-Baha noted that:
In cities like New York the people are submerged in the sea of materialism. Their sensibilities are attuned to material forces, their perceptions purely physical. The animal energies predominate in their activities; all their thoughts are directed to material things; day and night they are devoted to the attractions of this world, schools and temples of learning knowledge of the sciences acquired is based upon material observations only; there is no realization of Divinity in their methods and conclusions—all have reference to the world of matter. They are not interested in attaining knowledge of the mysteries of God or understanding the secrets of the heavenly Kingdom; what they acquire is based altogether upon visible and tangible evidences. Beyond these evidences they are without susceptibilities; they have no idea of the world of inner significances and are utterly out of touch with God, considering this an indication of reasonable attitude and philosophical judgment whereof they are self-sufficient and proud. – Ibid., pp. 261-262.
Throughout western civilization, the materialist viewpoint predominates, and has for several centuries. Those of us who have spiritual or mystical inclinations—with an enthusiastic interest “in attaining knowledge of the mysteries of God or understanding the secrets of the heavenly Kingdom,” as Abdu’l-Baha put it—often feel alone and unheard in such cultures.
Whether in Europe or in America, some of the sagacious men declare: We have attained to the superlative degree of knowledge; we have penetrated the laboratory of nature, studying sciences and arts; we have attained the highest station of knowledge in the human world; we have investigated the facts as they are and have arrived at the conclusion that nothing is rightly acceptable except the tangible, which alone is a reality worthy of credence; all that is not tangible is imagination and nonsense. – Ibid., pp. 360-361.
In addressing these scholars, philosophers, scientists and other learned men, Abdu’l-Baha recognized the inevitable conclusion to their materialist arguments:
In fact, from this standpoint the animal is the greater philosopher because it is completely ignorant of the Kingdom of God, possesses no spiritual susceptibilities and is uninformed of the heavenly world. – Ibid., p. 179.
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