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Lately many people have this crucial question on their minds: are we, as human beings, special and set apart from other animal creatures?
Many religious arguments have been made throughout the ages that we are fundamentally distinct and set apart from lower animals. However, more recent scientific studies do show the extreme likelihood—at least in a physical sense—that we have evolved from other animals, and even now maintain myriad physical and psychological characteristics in common with them despite our more advanced potential capacity for self-awareness and reason.
The Baha'i Faith, like other religions, teaches that a fundamental spiritual difference exists between human and animal, even if the composition of our bodies—including that of our brains—is not physically so very different.
Abdu'l-Baha said this on the topic of the unique station of humanity:
The human spirit, which distinguishes man from the animal, is the rational soul, and these two terms—the human spirit and the rational soul—designate one and the same thing. – Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 241.
What is this human spirit or "rational soul" Abdu'l-Baha describes? First of all, the Baha'i teachings tell us that ultimately our souls, and all spiritual realities, are forever a mystery to us as long as we are alive in this material plane. Baha'u'llah wrote:
Thou hast asked Me concerning the nature of the soul. Know, verily, that the soul is a sign of God, a heavenly gem whose reality the most learned of men hath failed to grasp, and whose mystery no mind, however acute, can ever hope to unravel. – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 158-159.
However, the Baha'i teachings also say that through the spirit of faith, we can be assisted by God to gain at least limited insights, generally in the form of images, metaphors, and intuitive feelings, into the nature of such spiritual realities. Abdu'l-Baha said:
This spirit, which in the terminology of the philosophers is called the rational soul, encompasses all things and as far as human capacity permits, discovers their realities and becomes aware of the properties and effects, the characteristics and conditions of earthly things. But the human spirit, unless it be assisted by the spirit of faith, cannot become acquainted with the divine mysteries and the heavenly realities. It is like a mirror which, although clear, bright, and polished, is still in need of light. Not until a sunbeam falls upon it can it discover the divine mysteries. – Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, pp. 241-242.
Abdu'l-Baha further mentioned the "mind," near the conclusion of the passage. Not to be confused with the physical brain, this mind is an inherent quality of the transcendent human soul:
As for the mind, it is the power of the human spirit. The spirit is as the lamp, and the mind as the light that shines from it. The spirit is as the tree, and the mind as the fruit. The mind is the perfection of the spirit and a necessary attribute thereof, even as the rays of the sun are an essential requirement of the sun itself. – Ibid., p. 242.
Abdu'l-Baha provided further elucidation of his metaphor for the rational faculties of the soul in a different passage:
These faculties are but the inherent properties of the soul, such as the power of imagination, of thought, of understanding; powers that are the essential requisites of the reality of man, even as the solar ray is the inherent property of the sun. The temple of man is like unto a mirror, his soul is as the sun, and his mental faculties even as the rays that emanate from that source of light. The ray may cease to fall upon the mirror, but it can in no wise be dissociated from the sun. – Abdu'l-Baha, from a tablet to the scientist Auguste Forel, p. 24.
So, although the reality of the human spirit absolutely transcends anything we can conceive of, the Baha'i teachings say a lifeline extends to the material body: these rays of the sun of our rational soul which shine on our body (including our brain and nervous system) and also provide a kind of interface with it.
That interface takes place in the heart—the place where the light of the rational faculty of the soul seems to shine first in us. From there, the transformative power of that divine intelligence spreads to the rest of our body and soul and does its work, bestowing heavenly thoughts and feelings and desires on us, gradually cleansing us of the veils of vain imagination and selfish desire.
This is what separates humankind from the rest of the animal kingdom. There is also an animal spirit, which shines in a similar way on the material form of other animals, but somehow the human spirit which shines its light on us is a much higher reality, capable of bestowing on human beings the capacity not just to engage in abstract thought and reason, but beyond this to reflect divine intelligence and power in the world of creation.
Thank you for reading this first article in a short series. In future articles I hope to discuss insights we can gain from different Faiths into the nature of the human soul and its interaction with us on this material plane, as well as attitudes and practices which can open us up more to our true self while we are here in the world.