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In contrast to most institutionalized religions, the Baha’i Faith teaches that theology is logical and reasonable, if we look deeply enough.
In fact, the Baha’i teachings say we should all examine our religious beliefs with the same rational faculties and rigorous standards of fairness and justice with which we probe the phenomenal world. From this point of view, questioning is not deemed heretical but as an essential tool for acquiring belief:
The essence of all that We have revealed for thee is Justice, is for man to free himself from idle fancy and imitation, discern with the eye of oneness His glorious handiwork, and look into all things with a searching eye. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 157.
One indication of the respect the Baha’i Faith holds for such independent investigation of truth as an aid to understanding spiritual reality is the fact that the major works of Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, are derived from His responses to questions, whether from believers or nonbelievers.
For example, The Book of Certitude, the central repository of Baha’i belief, is Baha’u’llah’s response to “questions addressed to Baha’u’llah by the as yet unconverted maternal uncle of the Bab,” the prophet and founder of the Babi religion and Herald of Baha’u’llah. Likewise, one of the greatest compendiums of succinct statements of Baha’i beliefs about foundational theological and philosophical matters is Some Answered Questions, which contains the responses of Abdu’l-Baha—Baha’u’llah’s eldest son and successor—to many questions posed to him by Laura Clifford Barney, an early American Baha’i.
Similarly, a great deal of the valuable guidance available to individuals and to Baha’i communities and administrative bodies are answers to questions sent to Shoghi Effendi, the designated Guardian of the Baha’i Faith. The major compilations of his letters are his studied responses to the volumes of mail he received daily from the worldwide Baha’i community. Likewise, the supreme governing and legislative body of the Baha’i Faith, the Universal House of Justice, regularly publishes collections of its answers to questions raised by individuals and Baha’i administrative institutions.
In short, one major method by which Baha’is are urged to attain conviction or “enter the City of Certitude” is to consider thoughtfully the logical basis for accepting the teachings of the Baha’i Faith.
For only through study and reflection—a process which necessarily results in thoughtful questions—can religious belief or any other sort of knowledge become a reliable basis for understanding reality and our relation to it. Therefore, where some religions have established a body of learned clerics or scholars who interpret religious scripture and teachings for the laity, Baha’u’llah abolished the clergy and commanded that each individual investigate truth independently:
Yet in spite of all this encouragement that Baha’is consider the rational basis for belief, one essential question rarely gets asked—not because it is forbidden, not because the answer is unavailable in the Baha’i writings, but probably because most people do not think to ask it.
The question concerns physical reality—why it exists and how it works in a universe created, so Baha’i scriptures affirm, by a loving and caring Deity whose sole objective as Creator is to devise a means by which human beings can come to know and worship Him and benefit therefrom.
This critical question is sometimes dismissed with a self-evident but inwardly unsatisfying response: Since God fashioned physical reality and since it is His intention that we develop spiritually, then physical reality must be a benevolent creation that somehow facilitates spiritual development. Another frequent but no less inadequate response to the purpose of physical reality is that our physical experience is a period of testing wherein we acquire spiritual attributes by means of dealing with difficulties and suffering and, ultimately, with the deterioration of our own physical bodies.
These answers may be true. On some level they may be initially comforting, but they do not penetrate to the heart where the question is conceived in the first place. They do not really satisfy us by responding to the paradox of why, if we are essentially spiritual beings, we are ordained to begin our lives in a physical environment that most of the time seems antithetical to all we proclaim the Creator to be and to all we proclaim the Creator would have us become.
To some, the Baha’i writings themselves may appear enigmatic and even contradictory concerning what should be our attitude about physical reality. For example, in one passage Baha’u’llah seems to admonish us to become detached from physical things:
But in another passage he asks us to become thoroughly involved in the physical world, even to the point of suggesting that mundane physical actions are the most important gauge of spiritual achievement:
The best of men are they that earn a livelihood by their calling and spend upon themselves and upon their kindred for the love of God, the Lord of all worlds. – Ibid., p. 51.
Clearly these statements regarding physical reality are not necessarily contradictory. The first passage cautions us not to allow attachment to physical reality to distract us from our primary goal in life—to become ever more refined as human beings. Furthermore, Baha’is believe that Baha’u’llah has provided humankind with those laws and institutions essential to guiding us in establishing the appropriate relationship with and utilization of physical reality in the various aspects of our daily life. Therefore, the question of why there is a physical reality might seem somewhat unnecessary or superfluous. Indeed, it could be that the very comfort these guidelines and boundaries offer us helps explain why the question about the purpose of physical reality rarely gets asked.
But the question does not go away. Whether articulated or not, the question resides within us, either as some constant background noise, like static on a radio, or as some discomfiting pain that we can, for the most part, largely ignore most of the time. But whether or not we have become acclimatized or accustomed to this lingering question, we will confront it face to face if we live long enough. The gradual decline of our physical bodies will ensure that we do. If we have neglected to consider the question, let alone arrive at some relatively satisfying answers, we might find ourselves a bit devastated.
In the next essay in this series, we’ll see if we can find a way to seek justice and avoid that devastation.