A heart-to-heart conversation I had with a former college professor years ago is still crystalline in my mind. We talked about religion and his ears perked up when I said I was a Bahá'í, for he was in the process of exploring various faiths.
I realized my words were affecting him, but not in the way I had hoped. My teacher confided that for years he’d been looking for a religion that taught reference for nature, and as he related to me his long investigation and continual disappointment, he wept bitterly. All I could offer was a sympathetic hug, for the Bahá'í Faith had not provided his answer. He moved on and I’ve not seen him since.
As a state park ranger whose friends are avid environmentalists with leanings toward pantheism, it has been difficult for me to attract them to the Bahá'í Faith. they always bring the discussion back to “what does the Bahá'í Faith say about nature?” In response, I note there are numerous passages in the Bahá'í writings which speak to the grandeur and holiness of nature, but the relationship between mankind and the natural world is not emphasized. My answer is not satisfying to them. they too move on to something else.
The Prophets’ teachings on nature have been difficult to decipher. In the Bible, there are passages which pull the believer in opposing directions. In Genesis, Christians are told to “multiply and subdue the earth,” yet Job says, “Speak to the earth and it shall teach thee.” Which quote provides the “Christian” view on mankind’s relationship to nature? Though there have been a few nature advocates, like St. Francis of Assisi, most of the followers of Jesus have accepted subduing the earth as just a fact of modern life.
The other major western religions have also failed to emphasize the sanctity of non-human life. Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism have elevated regard for animals to that of humans, yet stop miles short of advocating an environmental harmonious lifestyle.
Many native beliefs are also contradictory. While the African Masai “believe God is in everything” and “sing songs to the mountains and trees because God is in them,” their actual practice of encroachment with herds of cattle on wild lands and wildlife is a serious threat to the East African environment.
Like these other religions, Bahá'í, too, carries with it some ambiguity, if not contradictions on the subject of nature. We are taught that both Bahá'u'lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá loved the countryside as opposed to the city. Bahá'u'lláh’s quote about the country being “the world of the soul; the city is the world of bodies” advises us to live close to nature, to live a simpler lifestyle. Bahá'u'lláh repeatedly tells us that everything in creation is from God and of God when He writes, “All the atoms of the earth bear witness, O my Lord, to the greatness of Thy power and of Thy sovereignty, and all the signs of the universe attest to the glory of Thy majesty and of Thy might.”
Both Bahá'u'lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá use images from nature to illustrate spiritual truths and to call mankind to recognize the beauty of God, but because They go no farther than using nature metaphorically, most Bahá'ís generally don’t recognize plants and animals as sacred and fail to take on a steward’s role for the earth.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá writes that animals hold a special place in the dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh. “It is not only their fellow human beings that the beloved of God must treat with mercy and compassion, rather must they show forth the utmost loving kindness to every living creature….Therefore it is essential that ye show forth the utmost consideration to the animal, and that ye be even kinder to him than to your fellow man. Educate the children in their infancy in such a way that they may become exceedingly kind and merciful to animals.” However, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá picks and chooses which animals to love and which to loathe. “The beasts are innocent—all except animals which are harmful, such as bloodthirsty wolves, such as poisonous snakes and similar pernicious creatures.” Writing about wilderness, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá states: “If the earth is not cultivated it becomes a jungle where useless weeds grow;” and “Consider the trees: if they remain without a cultivator they will be fruitless and without fruit, they are useless.” Contemporary wildlife science and today’s environmental perceptions have dramatically increased our understanding of ecosystems and predatory animals. How can we put ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s statements in the context of the times?
Some of Bahá'u'lláh’s and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s writings on nature are surprisingly parallel to those of a stellar North American naturalist, John Muir, who has been called the “Yosemite Prophet.” By intertwining nature and religion profusely through his writings, Muir distinguished himself by the passion of his nature mysticism and evangelism: “No synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty.” “All the wilderness seems to be full of tricks and plans to drive and draw us up into God’s light.” Compare Muir’s lofty sayings with Bahá'u'lláh, “And at whenever time I contemplate the mountains, I am led to discover the ensigns of Thy victory and the standards of Thine omnipotence.” And ‘Abdu’l-Bahá inspires with “Spiritual Spring”: “The earth is in motion and growth; the mountains, hills and prairies are green and pleasant; the rain is descending from the cloud of mercy. If we are not happy and joyous at this season, for what season shall we wait and for what other time shall we look.”
Yet, the similarity ends in this style of writing, for Muir was also a passionate environmental activist. Where Muir took his theology of life to the realm of action, the Bahá'í writings don’t guide us in that direction. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said, “The attainment of any object is conditioned upon knowledge, volition and action.” The Bahá'í writings do glorify the wonders of nature but seem to go no farther than appreciative knowledge. There is no inspiration for Bahá'ís to act upon this understanding on nature’s behalf. And without the desire to protect God’s wonders the “mere knowledge of principles,” as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá states, “is not sufficient.” With Bahá'ís, there is all too often a quasi-appreciation of the spiritual attributes of nature and no scriptural or theological bridge that leads to a commitment of volition and action.
In many ways, the natural world is an important link to the Bahá'í Faith. Bahá'u'lláh spent two years meditating in the wilderness mountains of Iráq. He did not go to downtown Tehran. He did not declare His mission in Bagdad’s town square, but instead in the Garden of Riḍván (the Garden of Paradise). After Bahá'u'lláh ascended, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spent years beautifying Bahá'í properties, keeping the shrines ever blooming with flowers.
In the 1930s, a young Shoghi Effendi left Haifa each year for a few months, to be healed by the mountains of central Europe, to be alone, like his great-grandfather, in the balm of nature. The Guardian’s beautification of the Holy Land properties is felt by every pilgrim; the jasmine ethereal fragrance is omnipresent.
Bahá'u'lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá have given us the basis for an intimate relationship between nature and the Bahá'í. That relationship has been fostered by individual Bahá'ís on their own. Recent music releases for children by Bahá'ís such as Red Grammer and The Van Manens, have references to nature in their songs: “I pledge allegiance to the world to care for earth and sea and air.” Bahá'í institutions, however, have not guided believers to find spiritual sustenance and solace in nature nor advocated positions on any environmental issues. There is presently no Bahá'í resource to assist believers in discovering the profound joys of nature and ultimately becoming God’s caretakers of the only planet we’ll ever know.
In the end, it is the individual Bahá'í who will need to act in recognizing the validity of this vitally important issue. To help raise our environmental awareness, Bahá summer schools, usually situated in a natural setting, should include environmental education as part of their program, as well as formal and informal time to be alone and quiet in direct contact with the flow of life. A Bahá'í booklet on the writings pertaining to nature needs to be compiled. Tokens, the only publication which centerpieces Bahá'í quotes about nature, focuses only on the words of Bahá'u'lláh.
Inexorably, earth’s precious resources will continue to diminish. Space colonies or miraculous technology will not save us. Someday, one generation will pay the hefty bill for our plunder of the world’s life-sustaining natural resources. Someday, everyone will become a conservationist— and not by choice.
As with many other social issues of the day, the Bahá'í Faith should begin to take the lead in identifying itself as a champion of the natural environment. And this process begins with communion in the outdoors. This is one way to deepen our own spiritual potentials. It is a good way.
Beginning from the writings of Bahá'u'lláh, we can assist in the healing process of earth education and living more lightly on our heavenly planet.
Bill Knight-Weiler is a mediator for the State of Washington and the environmental community on timber and wildlife issues. He is the northwest regional director for the Institute for Earth Education, an international environmental association, and serves as dialogue’s environmental editor.