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Religion has given us a good term for the immeasurable, supernatural element which causes us to consider abstract non-material things real, manipulate our environment, do things nature did not provide us with the material or physical capacity to do, and imagine things that we can only surmise by inference: the rational 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. It is the first among all created things to declare the excellence of its Creator, the first to recognize His glory, to cleave to His truth, and to bow down in adoration before Him. If it be faithful to God, it will reflect His light, and will, eventually, return unto Him. If it fail, however, in its allegiance to its Creator, it will become a victim to self and passion, and will, in the end, sink in their depths. — Baha’u’llah, Gleanings LXXII, p 159
This essential human element causes us to struggle for contentment that other animals accept as a matter of course. It prompts most of us to distinguish ourselves from those other animals by our behavior. It also makes us accountable for behavior that in any other animal would be considered natural, but in us is considered inhuman, unnatural, immoral. It’s not a sin for an animal — even one as nearly related to us as a chimp — to kill and eat its neighbor’s young.
What causes us to feel, even those of us who reject religion, faith and God outright, that it’s inhuman to kill other people’s children (or our own) when other animals have no such reservations? The rational soul.
The way Scripture describes this chip off the divine Block — and its function — accounts for the conflict in the lives of humans better than any purely material theory I’ve seen advanced. It also accounts for our apparent obsession with the idea of God (however one wishes to define that entity). This rational soul makes us miserable animals. We struggle to live by the laws God gives us to keep us from acting like animals, in an attempt to protect our best selves from our worst selves.
Most of us believe it is wrong to steal, kill, and harm other beings. Many of us — perhaps even most of us — try to live by those laws because the alternative horrifies us. We even concern ourselves with the emotional and physical state of our food because we care for other animals. We nurture plants, and not just for their food value, but because their growth brings us joy.
Humans balance between two identities — the animal-physical and the rational-spiritual. I think most humans understand that — whatever we call this component that makes us seek intellectual, emotional and spiritual well-being as opposed to mere physical contentment — we cannot go back to the fields:
All men have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization. The Almighty beareth Me witness: To act like the beasts of the field is unworthy of man. Those virtues that befit his dignity are forbearance, mercy, compassion and loving-kindness towards all the peoples and kindreds of the earth…. — Baha’u’llah, Gleanings CIX, p 215
And also, because Maynard asked, I should note that Baha’is do not believe in reincarnation or in a physical resurrection, but instead in the eternal progress of the soul:
And now concerning thy question regarding the soul of man and its survival after death. Know thou of a truth that the soul, after its separation from the body, will continue to progress until it attaineth the presence of God, in a state and condition which neither the revolution of ages and centuries, nor the changes and chances of this world, can alter. — Baha’u’llah, Gleanings, LXXXI, p. 156
Of this essential piece of the human being, Krishna said: “It is God’s spirit in man”, the authors of Genesis said we were created “in God’s image”, and Baha’u’llah said that
“He hath known God who hath known himself.”
If true, this makes self-knowledge critical to human existence — most especially to a human existence that will someday be free of the conflict between our natural and supernatural selves.
Read the previous article in the series: Do You Believe that You Have a Soul?