Each of us has different experiences in life, different thoughts and understandings. Even when we look at the same objects, we don’t necessarily see them in the same way.
Our views of the world are as unique as we are. When we look up at the night sky, we all see stars, but our perceptions of what we see may be very different. Some of us perceive patterns and connect the points of light into constellations; others see the interstices, the dark spaces between the stars. Some see the stars in two dimensions, arrayed like electric lights of various sizes on the ceiling; others perceive a third dimension of depth in their varying magnitudes.
To some the sun and the stars are different; to others they are the same thing, with the one simply closer to us than the rest. When we represent stars graphically, some draw them scintillating with five, six, or more points; others just make dots. Regardless of how we see or portray them, stars are what they are, and their reality does not change. Only our perceptions of them differ.
The same is true of our individual understandings of God.
We all have varying concepts of God because we have different experiences in life, different thoughts and perceptions, different capacities and cultures. If we have different ways of seeing things such as stars, then naturally we’ll all have different ways of conceptualizing something we cannot see, like God. Of course, whatever concept we create can never portray God sufficiently. Regardless of what we believe about God, His reality is not altered. God is what God is:
To every discerning and illuminated heart it is evident that God, the unknowable Essence, the Divine Being, is immensely exalted beyond every human attribute, such as corporeal existence, ascent and descent, egress and regress. Far be it from His glory that human tongue should adequately recount His praise, or that human heart comprehend His fathomless mystery. He is, and hath ever been, veiled in the ancient eternity of His Essence, and will remain in His Reality everlastingly hidden from the sight of men. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 46-47.
Yet our concepts of God are bound to change and develop as we grow spiritually. As we advance in our spiritual understandings, our concepts will move away from simplistic definitions and will more appropriately reflect the reality ever unfolding before us.
You can probably think of numerous examples of concepts that change as we gain greater insight into them. For instance, the words up and down are among the first we learn as children. They represent simple concepts, and their meanings change little as we grow older. As children, if we were asked to explain up and down we might simply point above our heads and below our feet; and as adults we might define them as opposite orientations along a vertical axis. Both explanations are determined by our relative age and experience, and both are basically very similar. No matter how old we may be, we find up and down easy to explain because they are simple and straightforward concepts.
The concepts of up and down become less simple, however, if we move away from the surface of the Earth. If we were suspended one inch off the ground, up and down would still have meaning, and at one foot it would be pretty much the same. Even at an altitude of one mile we would still retain a sense of up and down, and we would have to turn completely around to see the entire horizon. But at one hundred miles above the earth the horizon would no longer be flat; it would curve into a long arc. At one thousand miles we would be able to see the entire circle of the globe. At one million miles the circle would have greatly diminished and the Earth would appear as a mere dot of light. At a distance of one billion miles it would be difficult to locate our home planet, and at one trillion miles the Earth would be completely invisible against the stars of the Milky Way.
Out in interstellar space we would notice that there is no “up” or “down” as we know it. These terms would lose their meaning. Looking out on the universe, we would have to find a new way to explain our orientation. In light of this new situation we might try to determine precisely at what distance from Earth the concepts of up and down lose their meaning. Eventually we would discover that it isn’t the concepts that change, but rather our understanding of the limitations inherent within them that changes. These limitations are always there; we just can’t see them clearly from our vantage point on Earth. They can only truly be understood in retrospect.
Up and down are neither right nor wrong, true nor untrue; they are simply limited earthbound concepts that are useful and appropriate in this physical world, adequate for as long as we are on it.
This is true of many other concepts, and serves as a good analogy for our understanding of spiritual matters. Because we have been born into this physical existence on Earth, we could reasonably look at religion and come to the conclusion that humans are physical beings in search of spirituality.
However, as reasonable as this assumption may be, it is based on a very limited understanding of who and what we human beings really are. When we are caught up in the daily practical concerns of our physical existence, it is difficult to discover that we are spiritual beings in the midst of the temporary physical experience of life.
This is one of the reasons why God has sent us prophets such as Moses, Christ, Muhammad, and most recently Baha’u’llah. They remind us that we are essentially spiritual beings who are on this Earth for a reason—and that we are here only for a short time. They tell us that we will all inevitably move beyond this physical plane of existence to a spiritual condition that cannot be adequately described in words. They teach us that where we are going is wondrous beyond our imagination, and that there are certain things we need to understand before we go on to that life hereafter:
Put thy whole confidence in the grace of God, thy Lord. Let Him be thy trust in whatever thou doest, and be of them that have submitted themselves to His Will. Let Him be thy helper and enrich thyself with His treasures, for with Him are the treasuries of the heavens and of the earth. – Ibid., pp. 234-235.