Some existentialist ideas relating to Bahá'í metaphysics

The being of the world, and the non-being of consciousness

Existentialism, as given in “Being and Nothingness” by Jean-Paul Sartre, defines being as that which is – also called the in-itself – and awareness as the consciousness of such being, termed the for-itself.

In order for consciousness to be aware of being, it must not have being in the same sense as the in-itself. If it had, then being freely and independently aware of the in-itself would require a separation between the being of awareness and the being of the world. What would be the being of this separation, and what would separate its being from the being of consciousness and the world?

Rather, in order to be perfectly free and aware of being requires that our essential reality not share the same essence as the being of the world. It must not have being of the same kind to any degree, since otherwise it would be part of it, and carried with it, and no longer freely aware.

This implies that consciousness can never possess qualities or objects, nor hold power, since these are attributes of the in-itself. Whatever power our “self” of awareness seems to possess is in fact the world’s complicity with our free choice, our will. If the world were never to comply, we could have no power over it. Power is not inherent in our awareness, but is an attribute of being that via complicity becomes related to our consciousness.

The same applies to possession. In the case of objects, possession results from a complicity on the part of the world not to cease regarding objects as belonging to us. In the case of attributes, these are maintained by the awareness of others, in comparison with what they observe throughout the rest of the world. If all others were to cease attributing qualities, qualities – as different from other qualities – would cease to appear to be. To this end, awareness can only say that it is or is not aware of certain aspects of being, but no such statements can made about awareness itself.

Our will, then, which is nothing other than the evidence of our conscious freedom, chooses among the field of its awareness, and in so choosing garners the complicity of others, granting out will the effective qualities of power and possession. But these are functional, role-based qualifications; they are not existential. In the existential sense, being is (whatever its mode), while consciousness is only the awareness of such being.

The contingent existence of both being and consciousness

Awareness does not self-subsist; it is perpetually an awareness “of” something. It cannot be said to exist at all, except as the awareness of being, evidenced by the fact that it cannot become aware of itself per se. For example, an awareness of my city leads to an awareness of my awareness of the city; which then leads to an awareness of an awareness of, etc. Notice that every element in the sentence is completed by “of”. The moment awareness becomes aware of its being aware, it ceases to be aware of its awareness, but is now aware of its awareness of being aware of being aware. Ad infinitum, awareness escapes every attempt to reveal its essence, since in fact it exists only contingently, in its relationship to being aware of being.

How is it that something non-existent can be aware? This is a mystery of the soul.

Thou hast asked Me concerning the nature of the soul. Know, verily, that the soul is a sign of God, a heavenly gem whose reality the most learned of men hath failed to grasp, and whose mystery no mind, however acute, can ever hope to unravel.1

Yet, if it is true that we do not exist – that we have no being – how can we live eternally? One possibility is: Because our role in creation is maintained by the Will of God. Hence the statement, “It [the soul] will endure as long as the Kingdom of God, His sovereignty, His dominion and power will endure.”

Consider a dark room, a man sitting on a chair, spinning a black wire with a bright light at its end. If he spins quickly enough and constantly enough, a bright circle will appear. If he spins very fast indeed, this circle will become bright and solid, and have all the apparent attributes of a circle. Students and mathematicians could come and study this circle, and learn from its circularity. Architects could use it to judge the arcs of their protractors. In short, this circle qua circle, in the eyes of the world, would be fully valid and complete. And yet, it does not exist.

If the man should stop spinning the circle, it would instantly cease to be. The “being” here is in the wire and the light. But in the world of man’s awareness, the spinning wire takes on the contingent being of a circle. And if the man had infinite strength, time and wakefulness, he could maintain the contingent being of this non-existent-yet-purposeful circle indefinitely.

Now consider the structure of the atom. It is mostly space; a nucleus of protons and neutrons that, through electrodynamics, keeps a set of electrons whirling in space. Within the sphere of the atom, nearly all its volume is empty space. But owing to the forces involved, and the speed at which the electrons orbit the nucleus, resistance to other atoms appears. And when trillions of these atoms are combined together, the effects of that same electrodynamic activity serve to create the appearance of a solid object.

If the spinning of atoms were to stop, most of the solidity in the universe would vanish (with the exception of super-dense objects). The region of space occupied by the Earth and its moon would suddenly become practically empty space. That is how little mass is present in an atom. If you imagine a tennis ball in the center of an empty cathedral, and a cherry pit rolling on the roof, it would approximate the relationship between an electron and its parent nucleus.

In this sense, everything we know – even the in-itself – is like the spinning circle. This is contingent existence. If God’s will were ever to cease, such existence would cease, and our awareness of it would cease. Like the man spinning the wire, God maintains the form of the universe and our experience of it through a constant manifestation of His decree.

Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world. It is a dispensation of Providence ordained by the Ordainer, the All-Wise. Were anyone to affirm that it is the Will of God as manifested in the world of being, no one should question this assertion. It is endowed with a power whose reality men of learning fail to grasp. Indeed a man of insight can perceive naught therein save the effulgent splendour of Our Name, the Creator.2

Our attraction to and fulfillment through being

Because our awareness is an awareness of, we experience an ongoing love affair with being in all its forms. To be aware of something heightens our sense of fulfillment, for awareness is our essence. We can also be aware of nothingness, of what is not, such as being aware of the disappearance of the circle once the spinning has stopped. We are aware of what was, what no longer is, and of many things that might have been but which are not. Yet even these objects of negation are founded upon being, says Sartre, since without being to act as the foundation for nothingness, how could nothingness become an object of our awareness? So we say that awareness is always an awareness of being, or of that which is founded directly or indirectly upon being.

We exist insofar as we are aware, and since we are forever aware of something, then it is what we are aware of that fulfills our existence. The truer such being, the truer our awareness. Sartre says, “We are haunted by being”. Awareness of being, since it is our existence, means that we dote on being; we long for it. But we are not it, we cannot possess it or have power over it. In a fundamental sense, we are ever separate from it. We relate to it through being aware of it, but we cannot become like it.

Resignation and acceptance of this state is by no means comfortable. Our instinct is to acquire the attributes of what we love, so that we can become what we love, and thus be satisfied and bring an end to our questing for all time. We cannot have attributes, yet we struggle furiously to acquire them – not functionally, in which sense they do have a purpose; we seek to acquire them existentially, as possessions of our supposed selfhood, so that we might prove to ourselves that we have acquired being. Inwardly we are aware of this impossibility, of our futility and despair; but we deny and suppress this fundamental dichotomy between the being we long for and our wish to resolve the situation by becoming this being. We “are not”, but since we long for being, we seek “to be”. But we cannot be. So we adopt the pose of being, we imitate what we love most about it, and then deny that we have not in essence become this being. We know that we have not become it – we have not even touched it, we are merely aware of it – and yet we will ourselves not to know this fact, since the illusion is less painful than our anguish at being a nothingness that cannot become aware of itself.

Acceptance of our role as awareness of Being

How can we resolve this? We struggle for being, yet forever it escapes us. We think we have gained it, but then we find we were duping ourselves into that belief. At every moment we are aware, we have an instinct toward being, but we can never touch it, never connect with it, never share its essence.

“God was alone; there was none else besides Him.” So lofty is this station that no testimony can bear it witness, neither evidence do justice to its truth.3

The resolution lies in detachment and resignation: in accepting that happiness is found only in our awareness of God, not in emulating God. He is the Master, we are servants. He commands, we obey. He speaks, we listen. We cannot long to possess, or hold sway, over the being around us. This attempt is what perpetuates our constant cycle of hope and denial. Once we consume this hope, and let ourselves fall into the perfect abyss of non-being, we will find ourselves rescued by His promise “in Our ways will We guide them”.

This is the plane whereon the vestiges of all things are destroyed in the traveler, and on the horizon of eternity the Divine Face riseth out of the darkness, and the meaning of “All on the earth shall pass away, but the face of thy Lord….” is made manifest.4

Accepting this station begins with acknowledging our utter poverty; that the essential nature of our relationship with God is to exist in awareness of Him. “I testify, O my God, that thou hast created me to know Thee and to worship Thee.”

That is, all that he hath seen and heard and understood, all must he consume in the denial “no”, until he achieves the City of Life, which is the Median of “but”.5

“There is no god” – implying any idol that captures our fancy except the True One – “but God”. We fulfill our role in creation through our awareness (“to know and worship”) of our Creator. Then we hear Muhammad’s statement “My poverty is My glory” ringing true, in that we find ourselves immersed in the sea of the perfection of His creation, no longer hindered by our absorption in the idols of our distraction and craving for what is not ours to be. Then there is nothing of which we are aware that is not an awareness of Him. Don’t we seek to possess being in order to ensure a constant awareness of what fulfills us? Discovering that God is manifest in all things: This is our paradise.

I therefore reveal unto thee sacred and resplendent tokens from the planes of glory, to attract thee into the court of holiness and nearness and beauty, and draw thee to a station wherein thou shalt see nothing in creation save the Face of thy Beloved One, the Honored, and behold all created things only as in the day wherein none hath a mention.6

  1. Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings, pp. 158-9

  2. Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 142

  3. Bahá’u’lláh, Kitáb-i-Íqán, p. 91

  4. Bahá’u’lláh, Seven Valleys, p. 37

  5. This refers to the Muslims declaration of Faith: “There is no God but God”. In begins with complete denial, “There is no God”, but ends in salvation, “but God”. (Provisionally translated by the author).

  6. Bahá’u’lláh, Seven Valleys, p. 3