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…how can the human reality, which is limited, comprehend the eternal, unmanifest Creator? How can man comprehend the omniscient, omnipresent Lord? – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 173.
I remember when I first learned about God. I was at a Baha’i gathering when I was very young—and the details are very fuzzy at this point—but I heard some discussion about God, and then asked my parents the obvious question, “What is God?”
They shared a short description which I have completely forgotten. For some unknown reason, I was interested in God’s whereabouts. Perhaps I pointed up and asked, “is God up there?” What really intrigued me was their reply, “God is everywhere.” I remember pointing to the left, right, up and down, and asking for each direction, “So God is over there?” God clearly wasn’t an intuitive concept at that early and very literal point in my life.
But even as an adult, the question of whether God is “everywhere,” or “omnipresent,” still puzzles me. Is it even accurate, according to the Baha’i teachings, to say “God is everywhere?” What does it even mean to say that God is “omnipresent?”
Baha’is believe that God is far beyond our human comprehension, an unknowable essence we can never truly comprehend. Independent of any physical form, God has existed for all eternity, and will continue to exist forever. Immediately, with those transcendent concepts in mind, it makes little sense to say that God could ever exist in a certain place. Here’s a quote from the Baha’i teachings that begins to work these questions of “omnipresence:”
Know thou that every created thing is a sign of the revelation of God. Each, according to its capacity, is, and will ever remain, a token of the Almighty. Inasmuch as He, the sovereign Lord of all, hath willed to reveal His sovereignty in the kingdom of names and attributes, each and every created thing hath, through the act of the Divine Will, been made a sign of His glory. So pervasive and general is this revelation that nothing whatsoever in the whole universe can be discovered that doth not reflect His splendor. Under such conditions every consideration of proximity and remoteness is obliterated. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 184.
Let’s break down this dense quote a little. First, a “token” means a “sign,” a “mark” or a “characteristic indication” of something. So, this says that all created things (everywhere we might look!) has some sign of God for us to see. These signs reveal themselves through the “names” and “attributes.” In both the Baha’i writings and the Qur’an, the “names” and “attributes” of God refer to the virtues God possesses. For example, God is referred to as “the Creator,” “the Pure,” “the Merciful,” and so on. When we look at anything in the world, if we look deeply enough, we can see some of these attributes. In a stream of running water, for example, we see its purity, which the Baha’i teachings compare to a sign relating to the purity of God.
We can perceive God everywhere, and we see the attributes of God reflected in creation, but it doesn’t mean that God literally is everywhere. It instead alludes to this concept that “every consideration of proximity and remoteness is obliterated,” which suggests that we cannot place God in this physical world at all:
Considering what God hath revealed, that “We are closer to man than his life-vein,” the poet hath, in allusion to this verse, stated that, though the revelation of my Best-Beloved hath so permeated my being that He is closer to me than my life-vein, yet, notwithstanding my certitude of its reality and my recognition of my station, I am still so far removed from Him. By this he meaneth that his heart, which is the seat of the All-Merciful and the throne wherein abideth the splendor of His revelation, is forgetful of its Creator, hath strayed from His path, hath shut out itself from His glory, and is stained with the defilement of earthly desires. – Ibid., p. 185.
If the last quote seemed dense, this one seems even harder! Some Islamic references exist here too; the phrase “We are closer to man than his life-vein” comes from Qur’an 50:16, and the concept of the “heart” of the believer is the “throne” of God derives from Sufi interpretations of the Qur’an and Hadith texts. But this passage says mainly that nearness to God, or distance from God, can never mean any physical distance, but rather refers to whether we recognize God in our lives, or if we are forgetful of Him. In this sense, at any place or any time we may find God near to us, but at the same time, we may find God far from us, depending on our inner spiritual condition. You could say this is a form of omnipresence.
Circling back, the question “Is God Everywhere?” has a few potential answers. On one hand, we can say “no,” because God has no physical existence and is not, literally, located anywhere or everywhere. Yet, we can also think of how all things reflect the attributes of God, or how God is always nearby as a result, and answer “yes.”
When someone says “God omnipresent,” I think back to my literal childhood questions, and still puzzle over this eternal mystery.