The Eternal Quest for God: Chapter 2
Chapter1   Chapter 3
return to Table of Contents

The Beginning of All Things

`The beginning of all things is the knowledge of God ...':[1] with this epigrammatic statement Bahá'u'lláh indicates in God the centre of human life. In `the knowledge of God' is `the beginning of all things', such as knowing, being aware, acting, working, educating, governing, making art. Therefore Bahá'í scholars or would-be philosophers must necessarily move from this `beginning' in their efforts to relate the pregnant concepts of `divine philosophy' enshrined in the Bahá'í texts with the great discoveries made by human intellect during this century described by `Abdu'l-Bahá as `a century of the revelation of reality', `the century of science, inventions, discoveries and universal laws'.[2]

God is unknowable

`... man cannot grasp the Essence of Divinity ...': this is the first statement Bahá'í scholars or would-be philosophers are bound to utter. Similar statements are numerous in the Bahá'í texts. Herein follow some of the explanations set forth in the Bahá'í texts to justify such human incapacity:

Differentiation of stages. Bahá'u'lláh writes: `Whatsoever in the contingent world can either be expressed or apprehended can never transgress the limits which, by its inherent nature, have been imposed upon it';[3] and moreover: `Every attempt which, from the beginning that has no beginning, hath been made to visualize and know God is limited by the exigencies of His own creation ...'4 And `Abdu'l-Bahá explains that `... differentiation of stages in the contingent world is an obstacle to understanding. Every superior stage comprehendeth that which is inferior and discovereth the reality thereof, but the inferior one is unaware of that which is superior and cannot comprehend it. Thus man cannot grasp the Essence of Divinity ...'5

God's all-inclusiveness. `... the Divine Essence surrounds all things. Verily, that which surrounds is greater than the surrounded, and the surrounded cannot contain that by which it is surrounded, nor comprehend its reality'.[6]

Human limitations. `... whatsoever can be conceived by man is a reality that hath limitations and is not unlimited; it is circumscribed, not all-embracing. It can be comprehended by man, and is controlled by him.'[7]

Human incapacity to know the essence of things. `As our knowledge of things, even of created and limited things, is knowledge of their qualities and not of their essence, how is it possible to comprehend in its essence the Divine Reality, which is unlimited?'[8]

Limitations of human understanding. `It is evident that the human understanding is a quality of the existence of man, and that man is a sign of God: how can the quality of the sign surround the creator of the sign? that is to say, how can the understanding, which is a quality of the existence of man, comprehend God?'[9]

The same idea is set forth also in other words: `These people, all of them, have pictured a God in the realm of the mind, and worship that image which they have made for themselves. And yet the image is comprehended, the human mind being the comprehender thereof, and certainly the comprehender is greater than that which lieth within its grasp; for imagination is but the branch, while mind is the root; and certainly the root is greater than the branch.'[10]

* * *

To the question `How shall we know God?', `Abdu'l-Bahá answers: `We know Him by His attributes. We know Him by His signs. We know Him by His names'.[11] Man can know God `... by his reasoning power, by observation, by his intuitive faculties and the revealing power of his faith': he will be thus enabled to `believe in God, discover the bounty of His Grace ... become[th] certain that ... conclusive spiritual proofs assert the existence of that unseen reality'.[12] This is the true `science of Divinity', a set of `intellectual proofs ... based upon observation and evidence', `logically proving the reality of Divinity, the effulgence of mercy, the certainty of inspiration and immortality of the spirit'.[13]

Therefore, though God is inaccessible in His Essence, man is able nevertheless to understand that He exists. He can achieve this understanding by treading a threefold path:

  1. the path of his reasoning power, through which he can formulate theoretical, rational proofs of His existence;

  2. the path of observation, through which he can discover His traces throughout the universe and in human history;

  3. the path of his insight and faith, through which he can obtain a spiritual perception of His existence and confirm the results achieved through reason and observation.

Rational proofs of Divinity

Rational or `intellectual proofs of Divinity'[14] abundantly set forth in `Abdu'l-Bahá's Writings and recorded talks[15] can be divided into two groups: cosmological and teleological.

Cosmological proofs[16]

On the grounds of movement and the principle of efficient cause. Bahá'u'lláh writes: `All that is created , however, is preceded by a cause. This fact, in itself, establisheth, beyond the shadow of a doubt the unity of the Creator';[17] and `Abdu'l-Bahá explains: `... we observe that motion without a motive force, and an effect without a cause are both impossible: that every being hath come to exist under numerous influences and continually undergoeth reaction. These influences, too, are formed under the action of still other influences ... Such process of causation goes on, and to maintain that this process goes on indefinitely is manifestly absurd. Thus such a chain of causation must of necessity lead eventually to Him Who is the Ever-Living, the All-Powerful, Who is Self-Dependent and the Ultimate Cause.'[18]

On the grounds of the different degrees of perfection. `... limitation itself proves the existence of the unlimited, for the unlimited is known through the limited, just as weakness itself proveth the existence of power, ignorance the existence of knowledge, poverty the existence of wealth';19 `... our need is an indication of supply and wealth. Were it not for wealth, this need would not exist ... In other words, demand and supply is the law and undoubtedly all virtues have a centre and a source. That source is God, from Whom all these bounties emanate'.20

Teleological proofs[21]

  1. `... every arrangement and formation that is not perfect in its order we designate as accidental, and that which is orderly, regular, perfect in its relations and every part of which is in its proper place and is an essential requisite of the other constituent parts, this we call a composition formed through will and knowledge ...'22

  2. The universe is a `Great Workshop'; `though (its) infinite realities are diverse in their character, yet they are in the utmost harmony and closely connected together'. `Thus to connect and harmonize these diverse and infinite realities an all-unifying Power is necessary ...' In other words, `... interaction, co-operation and interrelation amongst beings are under the direction and will of a motive Power which is the origin, the motive force and the pivot of all interactions in the universe'.[23]

  3. `... when you look at nature itself, you see that it has no intelligence, no will ...';[24] `Inasmuch as we find all phenomena subject to an exact order and under control of universal law, the question is whether this is due to nature or to divine and omnipotent rule.'[25] `... from the premises advanced by naturalists,[26] the conclusions are drawn that nature is the ruler and governor of existence and that all virtues and perfections are natural exigencies and outcome'.

    `... man is but a part or member of that whereof nature is the whole'.

    `Man possesses certain virtues of which nature is deprived.'

    `Man, the creature, has volition and certain virtues. Is it possible that his Creator is deprived of these?'

    `... the Creator of man must be endowed with superlative intelligence and power in all points that creation involves and implies'.25

  4. `... formation is of three kinds and of three kinds only: accidental, necessary and voluntary. The coming together of the various constituent elements of being cannot be compulsory, for then the formation must be an inherent property of the constituent parts and the inherent property of a thing can in no wise be dissociated from it, such as light that is the revealer of things, heat that causes the expansion of elements, and the solar rays which are the essential property of the sun. Thus under such circumstances the decomposition of any formation is impossible, for the inherent properties of a thing cannot be separated from it. The third formation remaineth and that is the voluntary one, that is, an unseen force described as the Ancient Power, causeth these elements to come together, every formation giving rise to a distinct being.'[27]

The rational proofs of God's existence set forth by `Abdu'l-Bahá are not, evidently, new in the context of Western and Islamic philosophy. In this respect, it should be noted that `Abdu'l-Bahá's authoritative exposition of the Bahá'í teachings -- set forth in His Writings and recorded talks -- is often worded in a Western, mostly Aristotelian and Plotinian, philosophical language. He uses this language -- as Bahá'u'lláh said addressing a Sufi audience in a Sufi philosophical language -- `out of deference to the wont of men and after the manners of the friends':[28] in other words He is willing to adapt His language to the understanding and culture of the audience He is addressing.29

The perception of the indwelling Spirit

Though `Abdu'l-Bahá says that these rational proofs are `a decisive argument',[30] nevertheless He does not present them as an irreplaceable demonstration of God's existence, nor does He say that they may alone inspire an atheist with faith in God. `These obvious arguments', He states, `are adduced for the weak souls; but if the inner perception is open, a hundred thousand clear proof become visible. Thus, when man feels the indwelling spirit, he is in no need of arguments for its existence; but for those who are deprived of the bounty of the spirit, it is necessary to establish external arguments.'[31]

He wrote however: `... apply thyself to rational and authoritative arguments. For arguments are a guide to the path and by this the heart will be turned unto the Sun of Truth. And when the heart is turned unto the Sun, then the eye will be opened and will recognize the Sun through the Sun itself. Then (man) will be in no need of arguments (or proofs) for the Sun is altogether independent ...'[32]

In other words, these rational proofs, as promoters of faith in God, are only relatively effective. Inasmuch as `... the reality of Divinity is evidenced by virtue of its outpourings and bestowals',[33] rational proofs should be confirmed through the other two above mentioned paths (i.e. observation, and insight and faith) which -- because they can lead to the recognition of God's traces throughout the universe -- open `the inner perception'[34] to His existence and are therefore a more effective path towards a strong faith in Him.

Bahá'u'lláh writes: `Every created thing in the whole universe is but a door leading unto His knowledge, a sign of His sovereignty, a revelation of His names, a symbol of His majesty, a token of His power, a means of admittance into His straight path ...'[35]

And `Abdu'l-Bahá says: 'If we wish to come in touch with the reality of Divinity, we do so by recognizing its phenomena, its attributes and traces, which are widespread in the universe. All things in the world of phenomena are expressive of that one reality'; because God `... has bestowed (His) bounties upon all kingdoms of the phenomenal world, and evidences of spiritual manifestation are witnessed throughout the realms of contingent existence ...'[36]

`And whensoever -- He writes moreover -- thou dost gaze upon creation all entire, and dost observe the very atoms thereof, thou wilt note that the rays of the Sun of Truth are shed upon all things and shining within them, and telling of that Day Star's splendours, Its mysteries and the spreading of Its light.'[37]

The perception of the `indwelling spirit',[38] bestowing the inner assurance of God's existence, is mostly unknown to modern man, who very often treads the materialistic path, assuming sense perception to be the measure of all things and denying anything sense perception cannot grasp: `We are not captive of superstitions', are the words `Abdu'l-Bahá properly ascribes to His contemporary materialistic philosophers, `we have implicit faith in the impressions of senses and know nothing beyond the realm of nature, which contains and covers everything.'[39]

But, `Abdu'l-Bahá declares, `The bestowals of God which are manifest in all phenomenal life are sometimes hidden by intervening veils of mental and mortal vision which render man spiritually blind and incapable; but when those scales are removed and the veils are rent asunder, then the great signs of God will become visible, and he will witness the eternal light fillin the world. The bestowals of God are all and always manifest.'[40]

This is a clear invitation to seek throughout the universe God's traces, adopting the criteria of a free and independent search after truth; as man discovers those traces, `... he will find himself endowed with a new eye, a new ear, a new heart and a new mind. He will contemplate the manifest signs of the universe, and will penetrate the hidden mysteries of the soul ... he will perceive within every atom a door that leadeth him to the station of absolute certitude. He will discover in all things the mysteries of Divine Revelation and the evidence of an everlasting manifestation':[41] he will be thus enabled to acquire that `knowledge of God' in which Bahá'u'lláh indicates `the beginning of all things'.[42]

This might well be the second stage on the path trodden by Bahá'í scholars or would-be philosophers: pursuing God's traces throughout the Universe or, in other words, searching out `the indwelling spirit'.43

End notes:

[1] Gleanings, p.5.

[2] Promulgation, pp.326, 29, 188.

[3] Gleanings, p.151.

4 ibid. p.318.

5 `Tablet to Dr. A. Forel' in Bahá'í World, XV, p.37.

[6] Some Answered Questions, p.146.

[7] `Tablet to Dr. A. Forel' in Bahá'í World, XV, p.37.

[8] Some Answered Questions, p.220.

[9] ibid. pp.146-7.

[10] Selections, p.53.

[11] Promulgation, p.422.

[12] `Tablet to Dr. A. Forel' in Bahá'í World, XV, p.40.

[13] Promulgation, p.326. The `science of Divinity' is usually called theology. See above, p.xvi and no. 3.

[14] Promulgation, p.326.

[15] See Selections, pp.48-9; Tablet to Dr. A. Forel in Bahá'í World XV, pp.40-42; Some Answered Questions, p.5; Promulgation, pp.17-8, 79-83, 423-5; Divine Philosophy, pp.98-103.

[16] By cosmology philosophers mean an investigation `of the origin, the formation, the order and the aims of the cosmic world'. (S. Battaglia, Grande Dizionario, III, p.888). The proofs we have mentioned here are called cosmological because they demonstrate God's existence on the grounds of the observation of the cosmos: movement, the principle of efficient cause, the different degrees of perfection. These proofs were set forth by Aristotle in his Physics and Metaphysics and revised by St Thomas Aquinas and Avicenna in their writings.

[17] Gleanings, p.162.

[18] `Tablet to Dr. A. Forel' in Bahá'í World, XV, p.41.

19 ibid.

20 promulgation, p.83.

[21] Teleology is that part of natural philosophy which aims at explaining the object of things; teleological proofs, called also physical-teleological, study the universe, discover its order and design and from this order infer an Intelligent Being which is its Ordainer.

22 `Tablet to Dr. A. Forel' in Bahá'í World, XV, p.42.

[23] ibid. pp.40, 42.

[24] Some Answered Questions, p.3.

[25] Promulgation, pp.80, 82.

[26] By naturalists, materialistic philosophers are meant.

[27] `Tablet to Dr. A. Forel' in Bahá'í World, XV, pp.40-41.

[28] Seven Valleys, p.26.

29 Thus J. R. Cole explains the reasons why a certain philosophical language is sometimes used in the Bahá'í texts: `The Bahá'í Manifestation of God, Bahá'u'lláh, wrote in Arabic and Persian, and his immediate audience consisted for the most part of nineteenth-century Middle Eastern Muslims. The theological and philosophical ideas familiar to His audience owed a great deal, not only to the Judeo-Christian and Islamic religious traditions, but also to the Greek and Hellenistic philosophical heritage. For this reason, much of the psychology and the cosmogony of the Bahá'í writings is framed in broadly Aristotelian terms. Their image of the prophet bear a likeness in certain respects to the philosopher-king of Plato and al-Farabi. The mystical theology of Plotinus (203-269/70 AD), the founder of Neo-platonism, particularly influenced the cultural context of the Bahá'í writings. Plotinus taught God's unknowability, the emanation doctrine of creation, and the coeternity of the universe with God. He also asserted the existence of a Universal Intellect as a metaphysical principle between God and the physical universe. In their own particular manner, the Bahá'í writings affirm many of these ideas, as well.' (`The Concept of the Manifestation in the Bahá'í Writings' in Bahá'í Studies IX, pp.2-3.) The same concept can be applied also to the Writings and the recorded talks of `Abdu'l-Bahá, which were addressed not only to Eastern, but also to Western audiences.

[30] Promulgation, p.326.

[31] Some Answered Questions, p.6.

[32] Tablets, p.168.

[33] Promulgation, p.313.

[34] Some Answered Questions, p.6.

[35] Gleanings, p.160.

[36] Promulgation, pp.422, 173.

[37] Selections, p.41.

[38] Some Answered Questions, p.6.

[39] Promulgation, p.312.

[40] ibid. p.90.

[41] Bahá'u'lláh, Kitáb-i-Íqán, p.196.

[42] Gleanings, p.5.

Chapter1   Chapter 3
return to Table of Contents

Home ][ Sacred Writings ][ Bulletin board
Primary sources ][ Secondary sources ][ Resources
Links ][ Personal pages ][ Other sites

Google distinguishes accents, e.g. "Babi" and "Bábí"
return different results. See more search tips.