Ever so often, we’ll be putting up posts for our ‘Common Questions Series’. As the name suggests, these are questions about the Faith that we often get. You know those ones – where you kinda, sorta, maybe know the answer but aren’t sure if you know enough to give the asker a full response? Yeah, those ones. Baha’i Blog has decided to make a collection of those questions, which will hopefully be as helpful to you, our readers, as it is to us!
The question of God’s existence is fundamental to a number of life’s bigger questions. Where do we come from? What is the purpose of life? What happens when we die? Belief in some sort of spiritual realm has been present in human societies from about 130,000 years ago and has persisted through the ages in all human cultures.
Different religious teachings have presented us with different understandings of God. In Christianity, God is understood as the ‘Heavenly Father’. In Judaism, God’s attributes as a life-giver, authority figure and protector are emphasised. In Zoroastrianism, God is understood as the omniscient creator of truth and guardian of justice. In some understandings of Hinduism, there are many different personal gods, all representing a different attribute of one supreme, universal Spirit.
In modern times, however, growing scientific knowledge about our universe and its origins, along with the clash of religious beliefs and growing religious fanaticism, have seen a renewed questioning of the existence of God. Traditional religious explanations of the origin of our life and the purpose of our existence no longer satisfy people as these ideas are increasingly scrutinised in the context of our modern societies. Where we formerly lacked scientific knowledge and used God to “fill the gaps”, science is now beginning to replace religion as a source of answers. Many people are now turning wholly to science, and not religion, to understand the nature of our reality.
In the Baha’i Faith, Baha’u’llah teaches us about the fundamental unity of science and religion – that each approach the investigation of reality from different, but not necessarily contradictory, perspective. Humanity’s great scientific advancements need to be matched with an advancement in the understanding of God and the nature of spiritual reality. In an article responding to Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, Steven Phelps looks at some of the common reasons for a disbelief in God and looks at how the Baha’i understanding of the relationship between spiritual reality and physical reality holds up in light of the arguments put forward by Dawkins.
As seen with the arguments made by Dawkins, the main question that I’ve often been asked my friends who grapple with the question of God is that of proof: how can you know that God exists? How can you believe in something that you cannot see or even understand? Why do we need a belief in God to live good, moral and meaningful lives?
As anyone who has had discussions about science and philosophy in relation to these questions has experienced, it seems that there is no rational argument or physical proof that can adequately demonstrate God’s existence. In my conversations with friends, I often find that I have to begin with a discussion about what God is not rather than what God is. Baha’u’llah affirms that God is an unknowable essence and that it is beyond the ability of the human mind to ever understand His Reality.
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
While the Reality of God is not something that we can understand with our human mind and physical senses, it is not to say that evidence of God’s existence does not exist. Baha’u’llah explains that evidence of God is everywhere, that “every created thing is a sign of the revelation of God” and that “nothing whatsoever in the whole universe can be discovered that does not reflect His splendour”. So while we cannot know the essence of God, we can know Him by His signs.
Foremost among these signs are the Manifestations of God, who provide mankind with guidance for its advancement, each giving a fuller account of reality than the last. They act as perfect mirrors reflecting all of God’s attributes in the human world and provide us with the guidance we need to utilise our inherent ability to perceive God and to develop ourselves spiritually. `Abdu’l-Baha explains that it is primarily through the use of our inner, spiritual senses that we perceive God and His signs; that God “has given us material gifts and spiritual graces, outer sight to view the lights of the sun and inner vision by which we may perceive the glory of God”.
In a world where a strictly materialist notion of human nature is gaining popularity, it is widely presumed that the only tools of perception that people have at their disposal are those of their physical senses and rational intellect. The existence of spiritual faculties for perception is largely discarded. Too often, we allow the intellectual ambiguity of the questions about God to act as a veil – we focus solely on mastering the knowledge of the mind, with no attention given to knowledge of the heart.
Just as there are laws of the physical universe that we can understand through science there are laws of spiritual reality that we can only understand through the lives and teachings of the Manifestations of God. By following the laws and striving to emulate the Manifestations, our spiritual faculties are developed and we are able to draw closer to God and witness the spiritual proofs of a spiritual reality.
In the Hidden Words, Baha’u’llah says:
O SON OF BEING! Love Me, that I may love thee. If thou lovest Me not, My love can in no wise reach thee. Know this, O servant. No. 5 from the Arabic
In a world besieged by problems that are ultimately of a spiritual nature and in which the transformation of society is dependent on the transformation of individuals, it becomes all the more important to focus on acquiring “knowledge of the heart” and to develop our spiritual faculties. By loving God, we are turning to God and putting the Teachings that have been revealed to us for this age into practice. These are the Teachings that – when practised – will manifest a deep spiritual transformation in both the individual and in society. This, in itself, is so clear a spiritual proof of the existence of God and the divinity of His Manifestations, so as to create the greatest certitude in the heart of a believer!