Our idea of God

Each person has a certain conception of “God” that exists in his mind. At the very least, it is a word which implies that which is not known. But usually there other ideas added on to this, such as benevolence, omnipotence, or mercy.

By allowing attributes to enter the discussion, the problem becomes greatly magnified. Who is God, really? Is He abstract, nearby, immediate, distant? When I look at the rising sun, all ruddy from the efforts of waking, there is something within my heart that gets tickled, deep inside. The animals do not respond to this the same way: they plant their nests in whatever spot is most convenient. But people… human beings make all manner of choices according to a world of conceptions animals will never participate in: beauty, honor, goodness, justice. Is this human sensation just an extraordinary event, or is this really the soul experiencing the attributes of its Creator?

This is only the God of beauty, however, raising up the sun with His cloud-hands. What about when another individual performs an endearing act of kindness, or generosity? When we see our children learning compassion? When, in the Writings, we glimpse that indescribable majesty inherent through all Creation…

Even still, these images of God are not exhaustive. Outside of these wonderful qualities, which are so often described in the Writings: the Best-Beloved of all things, the Most Bountiful, the Most Great, the Beauteous: there seems to be yet another God, one before Whom we tend to cower more than soar. Some thing (I hesitate to call it God) which accuses us of every wrong we commit; that is eager and swift to exercise punishment; Who tends to domineer over our efforts to tread a different path, for fear we might incur “His” wrath…

What is this thing, this entity in our minds? I’ve encountered many people who’ve experienced the whole gamut of negative emotions in their relationship with religion. How could that be consonant with the expressions of divine love we find so common in our Faith?

Veiled in My immemorial being and in the ancient eternity of My essence, I knew My love for thee; therefore I created thee…1

Could ye apprehend with what wonders of My munificence and bounty I have willed to entrust your souls, ye would, of a truth, rid yourselves of attachment to all created things…2

Had it not been for the love I cherish for thee, I would not have uttered a single word of what hath been mentioned.3

We have desired for thee naught except that which is better for thee than what thou dost possess and all the treasures of the earth.4

From the look of things, our “idea” of God must be quite intricate, and have many facets. The question being: what of it is true? If God is truly unknowable – infinite beyond the conceptions of any finite mind – what kind of game are we playing at? How much of this conception is based on knowledge, and how much from psychology?

Which leads me to this question: How in the world could we ever be justified in judging ourselves harshly according to what we think God might want from us?

Let’s say that we wake up late, and we feel bad because, “God wanted me to do such and such; and now I’ve wasted the day.” What “God” is this? Is this our most loving Creator, Who is now pointing the finger, condemning our lack of initiative? Would a loving parent act that way toward a child?

The Writings seem to describe an Essence Who is constantly striving to assist us toward achieving our happiness. The byword is: encouragement, inspiration, discovery, awe, mystery, wonder; these are the reasons why children become fascinated with all manner of activities! This is what makes life fun. But at the same time, there exists some bizarre paradigm, sitting behind our thoughts, never allowing us the unexamined pleasure of a relaxed moment; because its always saying that we “should” be doing something. “Should” be different than we are; “should” this, “should” that: “should”…

Should we? Isn’t this what has made religious life so dry and empty, filled with the Spirit at times, but only during random encounters? If the whole thing is depicted with such awesome mystery, why is my excitement not consuming me?? When will I know the fulfillment of this verse?

Now is he struck dumb with the beauty of the All-Glorious; again is he wearied out with his own life. How many a mystic tree hath this whirlwind of wonderment snatched by the roots, how many a soul hath it exhausted. For in this Valley the traveler is flung into confusion, albeit, in the eye of him who hath attained, such marvels are esteemed and well beloved. At every moment he beholdeth a wondrous world, a new creation, and goeth from astonishment to astonishment, and is lost in awe at the works of the Lord of Oneness.5

It would seem that in a way we have become dominated by our conception of God; which, in a sense, is a domination by opinions formulated from our environment, and not really something born of the truth of our souls. We are guided directly by the form of the Law, it is true, but this bears only upon certain things not to be done, and specific exhortations that remain limited in number. The actual intent of our Creator, and the spirit, the purpose and wisdom, of His Law: how can we know that well enough to fabricate a voice within ourselves which commands us what to do, and which we spend our whole lifetime either dodging, assenting with, or defending? As if we were being ruled over by a fiction we imagine to be divine, but which is really just our own selves, fearing change: the true unknown.

The Manifestations are very clear about certain points of Law. They command us not to steal, bear arms, or murder, for example. But outside of these very clear statements, everything else takes the form either of description or admonition, exhortation or elucidation. The Divine “must” turns very quickly into the Exalted “should”, and within the space of that very moment a certain freedom begins to emerge.

The believers, and the Bahá’í community, are certain to change in the coming years. It has happened this way in the past, and will continue to do so. As other segments of the population enter the ranks of the Faith, and as we truly begin to embrace the world, the details of social life will shape themselves according to the ideas and backgrounds of that group.

Our Faith appears particularly open to receiving these diverse segments of humanity. But such acceptance implies a definite lack of the “should” which was mentioned earlier. That is, although it will never be lawful to murder another human being, what about our ideas of reverence, or piety, or sacrifice? These kinds of things are not dictated: they are adumbrated, suggested, extolled: but no concrete picture is given to us – excepting for the example of `Abdu’l-Bahá’s life, which itself was colored more by acceptance, than a demanding of any particular sort of conformity.

So it is, in this sense, impossible to decree what shape courtesy must take, since the ideas of the various cultures differ widely according to their notion of what courtesy is. Nor does the Faith itself state that everyone should act a certain way – beyond the clear provisions of the Law.

If this “should” is really missing from the intentions of the Faith toward humanity; if we truly are free to discover the limits of our own being within the bounds of the Law (and having no other bounds than these); if the Faith extends its open hands to all walks of life, and every background and disposition: then why do we treat our own selves so differently, as well as our immediate neighbors?

God did not create us to exclude us from paradise, but to welcome us in. He made it, in fact, in hopes of our entry! “My eternity is My creation, I have created it for thee.”6 He accepts everything about us, except that which He has clearly stated is unacceptable.

It is a mystery, then, what this psychological aspect of our conscience is that condemns so readily, and judges so quickly and harshly. It would seem, under closer examination, to represent everything that God is not, even though in our minds it often receives the name of what is right.

This opens up, perhaps, a new perspective on the rejection of “God” that is becoming so prevalent these days. To assume that the atheists, for instance, who in modern times often represent a very intellectually oriented segment of society, have made their decision to reject God and His religion without any rationale whatsoever, is to underestimate quite gravely the conscientiousness of these people. Rather, it is more likely that we have not yet understood what they mean by God, and by their rejection; that perhaps if we take the time to learn, we may well discover that they have considered the problem much more deeply than we have ourselves. A religionist who assumes than an atheist cannot “think straight” due to his rejection of God is probably just ignoring, or is not affected by, the same problems which led to his rejection. For example, if “God” meant a violation of your own integrity for the sake of preserving the outward reputation of the Church, would you not find yourself questioning whether such a God was worthy of one’s belief and devotion? Maybe such has been their experience, and to them, making the plea that they rejoin the religious life is like asking them to twice deny their own heart.

It appears to me that pain or maleducation is the primary motive for all aversion. This being the case, what exactly is being feared here? and so vehemently opposed, if not the very image of “God” which is exampled by the denial of inner freedom, the continual judgmentalism, the constant rejection, and accusation of failure? A voice of “God” that is so far from the Lover He declares Himself to be; a concept of “God” that is more aptly named the “Harsh Adjudicator”, eager to throw more human embers on the greedy flames of Hell…

The most loving, most kindly-disposed Being in all existence, is being shunned by humanity wholesale; His message of love and forbearing is being used to excuse all manners of atrocity; and His own name, at times, is mistaken to be synonymous with the cessation of all those attributes which make life enjoyable: pleasure, joy, freedom, peace, love.

This must not be God! This fiction that tears the world apart, stands like a falsehood before the Reality. Even what we think we know of Him – in every good and wonderful respect – even this can never approach the barest conception of His Essence.

Consider the past. How many, both high and low, have, at all times, yearningly awaited the advent of the Manifestations of God in the sanctified persons of His chosen Ones. How often have they expected His coming, how frequently have they prayed that the breeze of Divine mercy might blow, and the promised Beauty step forth from behind the veil of concealment, and be made manifest to all the world. And whensoever the portals of grace did open, and the clouds of divine bounty did rain upon mankind, and the light of the Unseen did shine above the horizon of celestial might, they all denied Him, and turned away from His face – the face of God Himself….

Ponder for a moment, and reflect upon that which hath been the cause of such denial on the part of those who have searched with such earnestness and longing. Their attack hath been more fierce than tongue or pen can describe.7

The divines of the past did not necessarily lack for sincerity, or devotion. But to what were they praying? The true God, Who, forever being a mystery, will always remain so? And Who, as a result of this, never appears such as we conceive Him? Even His Messengers remain like strangers until They announce Themselves. Or were those seekers after truth really striving rather for the fulfillment of their own imagination?

It might seem remote to our present circumstance – this denial in the past by those who were once in power – but the tendency remains with us to this day: the human mind’s proclivity to associate its conceptions of truth with Truth itself, and hence to reject the real Truth whenever it appears different from this conception.

Connecting the idea of self-acceptance to this illusion of “God” which the world appears correct to dispose of, is perhaps a bit of a leap. But isn’t it our feeling of “right” that aims our criticisms so laser-like at the doings of our fellow man? And don’t we derive our sense of right and wrong primarily from our conception of what we think God wants from our lives?

If not, then from where? If we are able to divorce our understanding of God’s purpose from this unrelated feeling of “right”, then of what conceivable validity is the latter? If it have no connection with the message of Those sent by Him, what possible claim to truth could it possess?

And yet we castigate, we berate, we vilify, as if the whole structure of life were about to come undone! The vagaries of our neighbors, the malversations of those in office, the rumors and stories: as if all of us were each privately bemoaning the non-existence of that world which “should” have been, that “could” have been. What nonsense! The universe is infinitely variable, and here we are, struggling to keep the ocean’s waters confined in a riverbed. God, the Origin of all, is the most obstruse reality man will ever become aware of, and yet we force on our brothers such a specific conception of His Being, and of His intent, that not even blood seems sufficient to expiate the difference of our opinions.

It is like there is a rotten weed, stuck in the soil of our hearts; a profound lack of insight into the nature of the problem. The first step is to eliminate whatever conception exists there now. The second is prevent any other from taking root so deeply. If those who have rejected religion, and those who have accepted it, could bond together in their common ignorance of His Reality, I think a much different sort of dialog would emerge. We are all, as nature made us, participants in the same physical and spiritual reality. Let’s not dictate to each other what the Unseen is, or claim that we have a conception of It. Perhaps, then, those not wanting to be dictated to might prick up their ears, and consider joining us in our appreciation of this sheer mystery of life. Isn’t that is what is, after all, to be alive: to feel the stirring of the unknown; to hear the call of the unseen; to sense, forever deeply, that something more – simply more – must be?

Nor shall the seeker reach his goal unless he sacrifice all things. That is, whatever he hath seen, and heard, and understood, all must he set at naught, that he may enter the realm of the spirit, which is the City of God. Labor is needed, if we are to seek Him; ardor is needed, if we are to drink of the honey of reunion with Him; and if we taste of this cup, we shall cast away the world.8

  1. Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 4↩︎

  2. Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 326-327↩︎

  3. Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 149↩︎

  4. Bahá’u’lláh, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 48↩︎

  5. Bahá’u’lláh, The Seven Valleys, p. 32↩︎

  6. Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words, p. 18↩︎

  7. Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitáb-i-Íqán, pp. 4-5↩︎

  8. Bahá’u’lláh, The Seven Valleys, p. 7↩︎