The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.
The Baha’i teachings define spirituality as the process of holistic development of spiritual capacities latent in human nature.
Explaining this process, Baha’u’llah wrote:
Having created the world and all that liveth and moveth therein, He, through the direct operation of His unconstrained and sovereign Will, chose to confer upon man the unique distinction and capacity to know Him and to love Him—a capacity that must needs be regarded as the generating impulse and the primary purpose underlying the whole of creation … Through the Teachings of this Day Star of Truth [the prophet of God] every man will advance and develop until he attaineth the station at which he can manifest all the potential forces with which his inmost true self hath been endowed. It is for this very purpose that in every age and dispensation the Prophets of God and His chosen Ones have appeared amongst men, and have evinced such power as is born of God and such might as only the Eternal can reveal. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings From the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 65-67.
Traditionally, the concept of spirituality is often perceived as ethereal, magical and unworldly experiences. The Baha’i view, however, demythologizes the concept of spirituality by emphasizing its practical expressions in the context of morality, social responsibility, service to humanity, and contributions to the building of a unified and peaceful human civilization. Baha’u’llah states:
In one of the Tablets, these words have been revealed: O people of God! Do not busy yourselves in your own concerns; let your thoughts be fixed upon that which will rehabilitate the fortunes of mankind and sanctify the hearts and souls of men. This can best be achieved through pure and holy deeds, through a virtuous life and a goodly behavior. Valiant acts will ensure the triumph of this Cause, and a saintly character will reinforce its power. – Ibid., pp. 93-94.
Baha’u’llah also said:
It is incumbent upon every man of insight and understanding to strive to translate that which hath been written into reality and action. … That one indeed is a man who, today, dedicateth himself to the service of the entire human race. The Great Being saith: Blessed and happy is he that ariseth to promote the best interests of the peoples and kindreds of the earth. – Ibid., p. 250.
Furthermore, Abdu’l-Baha said:
All the Prophets have come to promote divine bestowals, to found the spiritual civilization and teach the principles of morality. – The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 12.
To explain the relationship between spirituality and moral action from a Baha’i perspective, we can benefit from the analogy of a tree. The internal purpose of a tree is to bear fruit. Likewise, the internal purpose of spirituality is to bear moral character and modify human conduct for the advancement of a global civilization. Moral values are therefore the content of spirituality.
The Baha’i teachings view the material world as a starting point for the transcending journey of the spirit. They also emphasize that science and revelation are the two complementary sources of knowledge—the former discovering the material world and the latter explaining the realm of meanings and values. The human species evolves as a part of the evolution of biological systems. Abdu’l-Baha confirms the evolution of the physical world that has led to the emergence of living systems and biological entities, including the human species. In one passage, he said:
It is therefore evident that originally matter was one, and that one matter appeared in a different form in each element. Thus various forms appeared, and as they appeared, they each assumed an independent form, and became a specific element. But this distinction attained its full completion and realization only after a very long time. Then these elements were composed, arranged, and combined in infinite forms; in other words, from the composition and combination of these elements countless beings appeared. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 208.
Likewise, at the beginning of his formation in the matrix of the world, man was like an embryo. He then gradually progressed by degrees, and grew and developed until he reached the stage of maturity, when the mind and the spirit manifested themselves in the utmost perfection. … The law of God is one; the evolution of existence is one; the divine order is one. All beings great and small are subject to one law and one order. – Ibid., pp. 198-199.
Long before bewildered religious orthodoxies awoke to find a way out of the challenge of evolution, Abdu’l-Baha articulated a perspective which was neither traditional creationist nor reductionist materialism. He acknowledged that the universe came into being billions of years ago, that the properties of nature are properly tuned to allow the emergence of life systems, that the origin and evolution of life is one and humans are a part of this process, and that God has used the same evolutionary mechanism to give rise to special creatures with intelligence, free will and a knowledge of right and wrong.
Abdu’l-Baha made a strong case for the role of biology in defining human nature but found sociobiological interpretations of spirituality and ethics implausible. He contended that the origin and development of human faculties cannot solely be described according to the parameters of natural history. Abdu’l-Baha also argued in favor of a purposeful direction in the collective evolution of the human species. The gradual unfoldment of cultures and moral orders, rather than confirming naturalistic assumptions, points toward the existence of a spiritual force that like a magnet has drawn humans out of their animalistic heritage.
The Baha’i teachings maintain that moral values are formed in the context of creative tension between spiritual and biological impulses. This tension occurs in society and extends itself over all history. The spiritual dimension is believed to be the source of freedom over biological determinism as it contradicts and challenges the selfish and aggressive dictates of nature. Within the context of this contradiction, the expressions of morality and human freedom evolve. The Baha’i teachings relate the moral tension within the individual to the collective struggle of humanity to achieve higher degrees of spiritual completion and perfection. Such incessant creative tension between perfection and imperfection constitutes the process of man’s becoming.
We may conclude that the content of moral action is comprised of two poles of knowledge: biology and spirituality. From a bottom-up direction, biological evolution provides us with the knowledge of genetic, behavioral, and cognitive components of our physical life and natural history. From a top-down approach, spirituality helps us to understand the normative premises regarding the purpose of life, the quest for meaning, and the reason and the path to move beyond the ephemeral desires of the material world. Everything in the world without spirituality stands finite, even the best of human achievements. As Aldous Huxley wrote, “there comes a time when one asks even of Shakespeare, even of Beethoven, is this all?”
The integration of these two sources of knowledge, on the one hand, gives us an objective basis for our understanding of human behavior, and, on the other hand, provides us with a knowledge, a vision, a hope, an ideal that transcends the limitations of nature and releases us from the finitude of the material aspirations that restrict our progress. Spiritual knowledge, however, finds a dynamic dimension in Baha’i teachings. The dynamism of spirituality is maintained through the incessant interventions of God in history. When the transcending influence of spirituality declines and society falls back to the level of nature, a new revelation regenerates the attributes of God and aligns them with the flow of the world’s spiritual transformation. The force of progressive revelation naturally counteracts our inborn biological selfishness, and gives birth to culturally-based reciprocal and altruistic expressions.
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