This extract, taken from The Purpose of Physical Reality by John Hatcher, explores how God becomes known to humanity and how we can develop a personal relationship with something which is essentially unknowable.
The Bahá’í paradigm of physical reality logically begins with the concept of God as Creator. Because God is “immensely exalted beyond every human attribute” and “will remain in his Reality everlastingly hidden from the sight of men,” we are, especially in our physical lives, limited in what we can understand about the Creator.
Our most important information about God comes through the Manifestations, each of Whom perfectly manifests all the attributes of God, and through our experience with physical reality, the entirety of which bears the imprint of the Creator, the Manifestations can be correctly understood to be flawless, dramatic expressions of godliness expressed in human terms. Or put more simply, the Prophets of God represent the most complete and exalted expression of God we are able to comprehend during our physical existence. In this sense, the Manifestations are more than mere messengers or intermediaries between God and humankind – They are perfect reflections of God to the extent that godliness can be translated into a physical analog or material expression.
As we have already observed, every created thing in physical reality is expressive of divine attributes. Furthermore, the Bahá’í Writings testify that each of us is created with an inherent love of reality and an inborn desire to study and comprehend reality. Consequently, once we understand the fundamental nature of what we are trying to discover (spiritual qualities expressed in physical terms), we can achieve an ever more complete understanding of God as we study various branches of science.
Although our understanding of the Deity will always be limited, whether in this world or the next, the Bahá’í writings do provide a number of noteworthy observations that enhance our understanding of the essential nature of God. For example, the Bahá’í texts make it clear that the word “God” is not simply a term devised to give human expression to the sum total of universal forces and attributes. For while we can only comprehend the Creator in somewhat anthropomorphic terms, God is not a mythical invention. Indeed, the Bahá’í concept of the Deity envisions a Being Who is independent of His creation, but cognitive, caring, and concerned for His creation and its progress. Furthermore, as a loving Being, God has created humankind in such a way that we are capable of becoming attracted to the divine attributes of God through His Manifestations, then gradually coming to attain an ever more complete understanding of the nature of these attributes as we manifest our knowledge in various forms of creative action.
This concept of human nature is essential to any attempt to comprehend the Bahá’í paradigm of the structure of reality. God creates us out of an expression of love, not need or loneliness. Therefore, as divine emanations from God, we are created with capacity to understand godliness, but we are created with free will as to whether or not we choose to become godly ourselves.
In this sense, all human beings potentially manifest all the attributes of God: “Veiled in My immemorial being and in the ancient eternity of My essence, I knew My love for thee; therefore I created thee, have engraved on thee Mine image and revealed to thee My beauty.” As we have noted, everyone is invested with this potentiality because every individual has both the capacity and the opportunity to recognize the Creator through some means.
The most obvious access for knowledge about God is through the advent of the Prophets of God as each reveals teachings for a new age. The more subtle avenue for human understanding is in our relationship with physical reality itself, wherein the “names” and attributes of God are likewise manifest. Thus Bahá’u’lláh observes that while people are endowed with different capacities, God “hath endowed every soul with the capacity to recognize the signs of God.”
Once we attain knowledge of God through whatever means, we are then capable of establishing a personal relationship with the Creator through the various methods described by each of the Manifestations: prayer, reflection, study of reality, study of the revealed utterances of the Prophets, and so on. When we open up the channels of communication and receptivity by whatever means, we set in motion the process we discussed earlier about the reciprocal relationship between knowledge and action. We attempt to acquire the attributes as we understand them by giving them dramatic expression in our daily lives, and that action in turn deepens our comprehension of the divine attributes.
This personal relationship between God and human beings functions on both a personal and a collective level. Each Manifestation prescribes a daily regimen of personal spiritual activity and also institutes methods by which the community of believers can work together, both to form bonds with each other and to devise means of providing the community as a whole with both spiritual and material sustenance. So it is that the more as we individuals and as a community of believers study and emulate the qualities of the Creator, the more we understand the divine attributes of God. This enhanced understanding empowers us to employ more innovative patterns of action that express our knowledge of God. At the heart of this creative process of growth and development is an intriguing axiom that might at first seem abstruse and enigmatic: To know God is to know ourselves, and to know ourselves is to know God. Bahá’u’lláh writes,
In the context of this simple but infinitely complex method of human instruction these teachers, the Manifestations of God, might be likened to perfect mirrors reflecting the attributes of the divine reality that is the essence of God. For to study and understand Them and Their teachings is tantamount to knowledge of and proximity to God:
What Bahá’ís Believe
Bahá’u’lláh and His Covenant
The Life of the Spirit
God and His Creation
What Bahá’ís Do
Response to the Call of Bahá’u’lláh
Family Life and Children
Involvement in the Life of Society