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Inasmuch as the source of traditions and interpretations is human reason, and human reason is faulty, how can we depend upon its findings for real knowledge? – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 21.
“If you want the facts,” an author friend of mine says, “read non-fiction. But if you want the truth, read fiction.”
This question of facts versus a deeper, more profound truth has challenged me for years. I love factual evidence, and learning new facts has always inspired me. But I’ve come to realize that simple factual information doesn’t really inform anyone unless they have a larger perspective of truth. Acting as a framework they can fit those facts into, a bigger and more all-encompassing truth gives us a unified view of the world and a sense of coherence that far exceeds the sum total of the factual information we know. Facts are fine, but without a framework of truth they’re only a disjointed collection of details.
In this essay, which concludes the first part of our series on the human ways of knowing, let’s consider a way to build that larger framework of truth.
We’ve learned so far that we humans have four ways of understanding what’s true: sense perception; reason; authority or traditions; and inspiration. We’ve learned, too, that each of those ways of knowing and understanding has severe limitations. The solution, then, according to the Baha’i teachings, involves employing all of those criteria of knowledge at once:
…it has become evident that the four criteria or standards of judgment by which the human mind reaches its conclusions are faulty and inaccurate. All of them are liable to mistake and error in conclusions. But a statement presented to the mind accompanied by proofs which the senses can perceive to be correct, which the faculty of reason can accept, which is in accord with traditional authority and sanctioned by the promptings of the heart, can be adjudged and relied upon as perfectly correct, for it has been proved and tested by all the standards of judgment and found to be complete. When we apply but one test, there are possibilities of mistake. This is self-evident and manifest. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 254.
This very comprehensive, rational and scientific approach, which utilizes a combination of all of our possible ways of knowing in determining the truth, tells us that making life decisions about what we believe should involve every one of our senses and our mental and spiritual powers. Whatever we consider and investigate–if we use our senses, our intellect, the guidance of a higher authority and our inspiration—should prove to be true if it conforms to all of those criteria. This holds particularly true for any decisions we make about our most deeply-held beliefs:
Any religious belief which is not conformable with scientific proof and investigation is superstition, for true science is reason and reality, and religion is essentially reality and pure reason; therefore, the two must correspond. Religious teaching which is at variance with science and reason is human invention and imagination unworthy of acceptance, for the antithesis and opposite of knowledge is superstition born of the ignorance of man. If we say religion is opposed to science, we lack knowledge of either true science or true religion, for both are founded upon the premises and conclusions of reason, and both must bear its test. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 107.
For Baha’is, however, one more very important criteria of the truth remains, a fifth way of knowledge that allows everyone to move past their human limitations. Essentially mystical and far beyond the four human modes of knowledge, the Baha’i teachings recognize this level of knowing as transcendent, as transformative, as truly spiritual:
…man is said to be the greatest sign of God—that is, he is the Book of Creation—for all the mysteries of the universe are found in him. Should he come under the shadow of the true Educator and be rightly trained, he becomes the gem of gems, the light of lights, and the spirit of spirits; he becomes the focal centre of divine blessings, the wellspring of spiritual attributes, the dawning place of heavenly lights, and the recipient of divine inspirations…
This is the wisdom of the appearance of the Prophets: to educate humanity, that this lump of coal may become a diamond and this barren tree may be grafted and yield fruit of the utmost sweetness and delicacy. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, pp. 272-273.
…ask thou of God that the magnet of His love should draw unto thee the knowledge of Him. Once a soul becometh holy in all things, purified, sanctified, the gates of the knowledge of God will open wide before his eyes. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 190-191.
This way of knowing involves the recognition of the true Educator, whose divine knowledge comes to us through the most recent prophet of God. Baha’is believe that prophet–Baha’u’llah–has brought humanity an entirely new way of looking at reality, and a completely new and yet ancient source of divine knowledge. Baha’is see Baha’u’llah as the foremost teacher and educator of the world in this age, the representative of the Holy Spirit, the herald of human unity, peace and oneness:
How shall we attain the reality of knowledge? By the breaths and promptings of the Holy Spirit, which is light and knowledge itself. Through it the human mind is quickened and fortified into true conclusions and perfect knowledge. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 21.
O peoples of the world! The Sun of Truth hath risen to illumine the whole earth, and to spiritualize the community of man. Laudable are the results and the fruits thereof, abundant the holy evidences deriving from this grace. This is mercy unalloyed and purest bounty; it is light for the world and all its peoples; it is harmony and fellowship, and love and solidarity; indeed it is compassion and unity, and the end of foreignness; it is the being at one, in complete dignity and freedom, with all on earth. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 1.