Our relationship to the natural world can be likened to that of an embryo to the womb of its mother. The physical universe is the matrix in which we develop our inherent potentialities. Here, we cultivate the skills and qualities necessary for the spiritual and material progress of humanity and the onward journey of our own souls after death.
It took millions upon millions of years for the human body to evolve from the simple organisms that constituted the first living beings on earth. The theory of evolution—among the most successful of all scientific theories—explores the operation of this process and continues to reveal the intricacies associated with the development and diversity of life on the planet.
The Bahá’í writings, on the other hand, explain that the human spirit has existed since the beginning of creation, and only once a human body of sufficient complexity had evolved could the attributes of that spirit be expressed on this plane of existence. This opened the way for evolutionary processes of a different sort—social and spiritual evolution—to move to the fore of human life. The advancement of civilization today is driven by a rapidly expanding body of knowledge—knowledge that is acquired both through scientific inquiry into nature and through the study and application of religious truth, revealed progressively to humanity.
In various passages, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has described the human being as “the most noble product of creation”1, who “should be free and emancipated from the captivity of the world of nature”2 and who, through the exercise of scientific and intellectual power can “modify, change and control nature”3 and “gain control of and adapt” natural laws “to his own needs.”4
This does not imply that humanity should engage in a predatory relationship with nature. The endless acquisition of material goods, impelled by individual and collective greed, only aggravates the destruction of the environment. As more and more people come to recognize that creation is an organic whole, they also accept that the unique powers of humanity over nature carry with them the duty to preserve its order and balance.
Contemplation of natural phenomena advances our understanding of spiritual reality. “Look at the world and ponder a while upon it. It unveileth the book of its own self before thine eyes and revealeth that which the Pen of thy Lord, the Fashioner, the All-Informed, hath inscribed therein.”5 Nature can, for example, inspire deep insights into the concept of unity in diversity. “Consider the world of created beings, how varied and diverse they are in species, yet with one sole origin. All the differences that appear are those of outward form and color. This diversity of type is apparent throughout the whole of nature…Let us look…at the beauty in diversity, the beauty of harmony, and learn a lesson…”6
The Bahá’í writings are filled with metaphors from nature which express spiritual concepts as, for example, in this prayer for children: “O God! Educate these children. These children are the plants of Thine orchard, the flowers of Thy meadow, the roses of Thy garden. Let Thy rain fall upon them; let the Sun of Reality shine upon them with Thy love. Let Thy breeze refresh them in order that they may be trained, grow and develop, and appear in the utmost beauty. Thou art the Giver. Thou art the Compassionate.”7
Seeing the reflection of God’s attributes in nature and understanding them as an expression of His will inspires in us a deep respect for the natural world. This should not be viewed as a call to worship nature. Humankind has the capacity to emancipate itself from the world of nature; “for as long as man is captive to nature he is a ferocious animal, as the struggle for existence is one of the exigencies of the world of nature.”8 Nevertheless, the natural world is a divine trust for which all members of the human family—as the stewards of the planet’s vast resources—are responsible.
Such stewardship has a particular implication for the treatment of animals. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá writes, “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…Train your children from their earliest days to be infinitely tender and loving to animals.”9