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Natural Systems of Reward and Punishment

John Hatcher | Jan 2, 2018

PART 23 IN SERIES The Purpose of Physical Reality

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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John Hatcher | Jan 2, 2018

PART 23 IN SERIES The Purpose of Physical Reality

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

Is the natural world a just place? Does the natural world enforce the concept and the reality of reward and punishment?

In addition to the wise application of reward and punishment by the educators of humankind, there are at least two other parts of the physical paradigm where we can observe these twin pillars upholding the concept of justice.

The first is found in our relationship with the natural world. As we have repeatedly observed, the Baha’i writings perceive the physical world as an expression of spiritual attributes. This view holds true not only for the inherent imprint of the divine reality that objects themselves manifest—the “names” of God they reflect—but also in the various levels of relationship among physical objects.

The majority of humankind is now beginning to understand the strategic importance of such relationships, as is evidenced most dramatically in our rapidly emerging awareness of ecology, a dramatic expression of the essential unity and integrity of creation.

We are also beginning to understand that built into the intricate web of relationships among physical objects as portrayed by the study of ecology is this same law of reward and punishment. We now understand that a violation of that integration of relationships in nature is not simply a travesty against natural beauty and wildlife; it also  evokes punishment upon ourselves. We breathe foul air, eat contaminated food, and drink tainted water.

As a part of nature, the Baha’i teachings say, humanity is one with the natural world. Shoghi Effendi, in a letter written on his behalf, said:

We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions. – from a letter to an individual Baha’i.

When we fail to appreciate and safeguard the unity and the essentially spiritual nature of the physical reality, we then suffer the consequences and are trained thereby. This punishment or “karma” will force us to reexamine our response to the natural world, even if our more overt education does not exhort us to do so. Through this cause-and-effect relationship between ourselves and the physical classroom, even the strictest materialist ultimately must pay careful attention to the pragmatic exigencies of spiritual relationships within the physical world.

Another less obvious application of the twin pillars of reward and punishment lies in the practical implication of our response to moral law. Traditionally, we think of moral law and social ordinances as deriving from tradition or from human invention. As a result of this thinking, we are liable to believe that punishment will occur only if our violation of moral law is discovered by someone in authority. This common attitude explains why so many politicians consider themselves beyond the constraints of a code of behavior, other than the dictates of practicality or utilitarianism, until or unless they are “found out.”

Likewise, the perpetrators of social injustice, be they individual criminals or a social institution, may perceive moral law as irrelevant to its affairs. According to Baha’i beliefs, such perceptions are erroneous. If the physical world is, in reality, but the spiritual world expressed in concrete symbols, the relationships among all constituent parts of the physical world are expressions of relationships in the spiritual realm.

More to the point, all social law is, when correctly devised and understood, an expression of moral or spiritual law. Therefore, the law is operant regardless of whether the individual or society wishes or acknowledges it to be, and since moral law is always influencing our lives, it has the weight of physical law. By analogy, if we jump from the top of a three-story building, we do not need to wonder whether or not the law of gravity will be operating that day. We know what the result of our action will be, because we understand something about the laws of physics. We comprehend the end result of our action at the beginning of our decision.

Because of this certitude about physical law, the wise individual will pay heed to the possible effects of those laws on his or her well-being. Once we come to appreciate that the cause-and-effect relationships are no less binding with moral laws—since they are always operant, always extant—we will come to have the same respect for their consequences in our lives. Stated simply, the wise individuals will have the same certitude about the inevitability of the operation of moral law that they have about the inevitability of the operation of physical laws.

If we are unjust to others, we will suffer injury to our soul, as well as to the success of our mundane enterprises—because moral laws governing injustice are not simply religious traditions or a social wish. Justice is operant in every aspect of reality—it is not merely a social construct or idealistic stricture relevant only to a select segment of society or the spiritual realm. For if physical and spiritual reality are counterparts of a single integrated reality, then moral law has practical consequences and delineates the most propitious course of action in the physical world quite as much as it does in the realm of the spirit.

Nowhere are the consequences of moral laxity more evident than in the study of large-scale social injustice. History bears this out. A tyrannical social force (for example, dictatorships, feudalism, totalitarianism) may enjoy success for a time. Indeed, it may seem to succeed by virtue of its injustice. But the very same system is inevitably doomed to failure precisely because of this violation of moral law for the simple reason that unjust behavior is not simply “immoral” in some abstract sense of spiritual assessment; it is also impractical inasmuch as it does not comply with a law of reality. That is, if all people are inherently equal, then logically they should have equal rights in society. When a social system is devised based on the violation of this reality, it will over the course of time break down and cease to function because it is out of compliance with the laws of reality.

From this perspective, then, moral law describes the most efficacious and, ultimately, the most expedient means of accomplishing any objective, whether for individual or collective enterprises. Consequently, injustice will inevitably produce a negative result, a form of punishment—whether in this world or the next. Therefore, if we have the wisdom to perceive this “end” result in the “beginning” as we consider our choices, we will inevitably choose a moral course of action, even when another course of action may at the time seem more expedient.

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  • Hooshang S. Afshar
    Jan 4, 2018
    In practical terms I see 'reward' to be the salary I receive for the work I do in my job. As to 'punishment' it is oh so easy to understand by every one - it's self evident.
  • Rosslyn and Steven Osborne
    Jan 3, 2018
    Thanks John, I agree with the last two commenters as well, for when I have been the victim of injustice over and over again, and the perpetrators 'seem' to 'get away' or even 'prosper' from their wrong doings, often has me wondering 'HOW'. How are we going to turn this train of thought around? From political leaders down to everyday on the street persons thinking it okay to do this if you don't get caught, attitude? I do reflect on what Baha'u'llah said in allowing a man to live past 100 years so he could see that for all his ...evil plotting against the Faith came to no avail.... So I guess I will just have to be more patient with mankind to mend their train of thoughts as well...?
  • Jan 2, 2018
    The problem for me is when I see one person or group flouting natural law, and seeing to it that the inevitable punishment falls on others.
  • Derrick Stone
    Jan 2, 2018
    Thank you for this thought-provoking post. It brings to mind the Three Little Pigs fairy tale, and the literal and metaphorical lessons it contains.
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