The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.
When we moved to Cincinnati, we weren’t aware at first of its vibrant interfaith fellowship. But soon after moving in, I attended an interfaith prayer vigil in a park where, grouped with members of our respective faiths, we stood in a large circle to share prayers.
As the circle disbanded, a woman tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You’re Baha’i? I’m Sister CJ.”
It turns out she’d been the Catholic’s UN representative on the environment, but had no office space there. The Baha’i International Community also has a seat at the UN, and invited her to share their office with them. “I have a soft spot in my heart for the Baha’is,” she said. She’d moved to Cincinnati to manage a ministry of the Sisters of Charity called EarthConnection, whose goal is to educate about spirituality and sustainability. The next fall, CJ hosted a series of talks about creation care through the eyes of different religions, and she invited me to speak about Baha’i teachings on spirituality and the environment.
In my talk I presented the idea that science and religion are two approaches to knowing: Science without religion tends to materialism, and religion without science can fall into superstition. Then I considered how Baha’is perceive an interconnection between the human and natural worlds rather than having God-given dominion over creation. I quoted from Abdu’l-Baha, the son and successor of Baha’u’llah, the Baha’i Faith’s founder: “… all beings are connected together like a chain; and reciprocal help, assistance and interaction … are the causes of the existence, development and growth of created beings.”
I explained that we can visualize this principle of natural reciprocity by understanding that plants need the CO2 produced by animals, which need the O2 plants produce.
As humans we have a special relationship with nature. Like animals, our body obeys nature’s laws; unlike animals, our mind is uninhibited, allowing us choices unavailable to the plant and animal kingdoms. This relationship carries responsibility. Although material development has freed us from the life most mammals lead, Baha’u’llah said “If carried to excess, civilization will prove as prolific a source of evil as it had been of goodness when kept within the restraints of moderation.”
The Bab, Baha’u’llah’s predecessor and herald, counseled that all actions must be performed as “… a gift offered to God … in a spirit of utter selflessness and servitude and that … no behavior turneth into a real action unless it is performed for the sake of God.” As God created us from nothing and expects no reward, we should take care of creation as an act of devotion and responsible stewardship.
In that same spirit, Abdu’l-Baha pointed out that:
… co-operation and reciprocity at the level of a higher order are greater than those that exist at the level of a lower order. For example the evident signs of this fundamental reality are more discernible in the vegetable kingdom than in the mineral, and still more manifest in the animal world than in the vegetable.
Similarly, the Bab said humanity and the natural world are interconnected, and that we must assist “all things” to attain their perfection: “No created thing shall ever attain its paradise unless it appeareth in its highest prescribed degree of perfection.” The Bab enjoined all people to protect against the commodification of fire, air, water, and earth:
Nothing is more beloved before God than to keep water in a state of the utmost purity to such an extent that if a believer should become aware that the glass of water he holdeth in his hand hath passed through any impure parts of the earth, he would be grieved.
The Bab also wrote that all things must become a mirror of God’s love. He described nature as endowed with moral rights and spiritual significance, and that we should respect the realities of things: “Each thing within its own station yearneth to attain unto the utmost of excellence in its own level.” We too should reflect the perfection of God’s handiwork in ourselves, and help nature attain its perfection.
All of these spiritual teachings ask Baha’is to have a humble attitude toward creation, and value and respect nature. Baha’u’llah wrote:
Every man of discernment, while walking upon the earth, feeleth indeed abashed, inasmuch as he is fully aware that the thing which is the source of his prosperity, his wealth, his might, his exaltation, his advancement and power is, as ordained by God, the very earth which is trodden beneath the feet of all men.
Everything we need comes from the Earth, and the Earth will be our tomb. We rely particularly on the plant world. Indeed, the Baha’i teachings recognize agriculture and food production as matters of primary importance. Science agrees: research increasingly shows the need to be watchful over the purity of the water and soil that plants rely on and that we ultimately consume. A concern over the healthfulness of food produced by industrial farming has led to growing interest in alternative models of food production. Abdu’l-Baha pointed out in his book Some Answered Questions that “… it is possible to cure illnesses by means of fruits and other foods. But as the science of medicine has not yet been perfected, this fact has not been fully understood.” Just as mercy and compassion must be shown to humans, the Baha’i Faith prohibits cruelty to animals. One way to show mercy and compassion to animals is to not slaughter them for food. Baha’is have no dietary restrictions, and rely on their own individual conscience to decide what to eat, but Abdu’l-Baha did say “The food of the future will be fruit and grains. The time will come when meat will no longer be eaten …”
RELATED: Who Owns Nature, Anyway?
Examining the world with the eye of justice, we can see how environmental problems represent symptoms of social imbalances – those most sickened by pollution and most vulnerable to climate change are often poor. Further, the pandemic has awakened the world to the need to strengthen our interconnections and establish our unity, as Abdu’l-Baha wrote:
For none is self-sufficiency any longer possible, inasmuch as political ties unite all peoples and nations, and the bonds of trade and industry, of agriculture and education, are being strengthened every day. Hence the unity of all mankind can in this day be achieved.
The Baha’i teachings make it clear that the world needs a form of world governance to implement global solutions like managing Earth’s resources for the good of all. Baha’u’llah put it this way: “The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.” An increased awareness of our interconnection as one human family will help reframe our conceptions and reorient our activities. As we reshape our inner lives, Abdu’l-Baha wrote, so should we approach the environment with the same care and respect:
… until material achievements, physical accomplishments and human virtues are reinforced by spiritual perfections, luminous qualities and characteristics of mercy, no fruit or result shall issue therefrom, nor will the happiness of the world of humanity, which is the ultimate aim, be attained.
After my talk, CJ referred to Pope Francis’s recent encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home and exclaimed “Baha’u’llah was a hundred years ahead of the Pope!”
The following fall, I returned to EarthConnection to hear another talk on the subject. When it became clear the evening’s speaker wasn’t coming, CJ asked if I could repeat my talk. She’d saved my PowerPoints and I could access my electronic version via the wonders of the internet, so I spoke to a new audience. I gave my talk again, emphasizing that in caring for the Earth, the Baha’i teachings say, we must proceed with moderation, preserving the natural order of interdependence and biodiversity even as nature evolves.