O God, O Thou Who hast cast Thy splendour over the luminous realities of men, shedding upon them the resplendent lights of knowledge and guidance, and hast chosen them out of all created things for this supernal grace, and hast caused them to encompass all things, to understand their inmost essence, and to disclose their mysteries, bringing them forth out of darkness into the visible world! “He verily showeth His special mercy to whomsoever He will.”
O Lord, help Thou Thy loved ones to acquire knowledge and the sciences and arts, and to unravel the secrets that are treasured up in the inmost reality of all created beings. Make them to hear the hidden truths that are written and embedded in the heart of all that is. Make them to be ensigns of guidance amongst all creatures, and piercing rays of the mind shedding forth their light in this, the “first life”. Make them to be leaders unto Thee, guides unto Thy path, runners urging men on to Thy Kingdom.
Thou verily art the Powerful, the Protector, the Potent, the Defender, the Mighty, the Most Generous. — Abdu’l-Bahá
The above quote is a Bahá’í prayer. It may seem unusual to some readers that a religion would encourage its adherents to pray for scientific knowledge, but Bahá’u’lláh does exactly that and this prayer given to Bahá’ís by His son, Abdu’l-Bahá, is evidence of it.
The seeds of the Bahá’í regard for education and the acquisition of knowledge were planted with this early effusion from the pen of Bahá’u’lláh.
O SON OF SPIRIT! The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor.
(Bahá’u’lláh, Hidden Words, v 2)
With this brief verse, Bahá’u’lláh establishes the importance of education, which is critical to a person’s ability to understand themselves and their world first-hand. The independent investigation of truth—a central tenet of the Faith—goes hand in hand with a commitment to acquiring the knowledge necessary to accomplish this goal. Bahá’u’lláh counsels us to
Strain every nerve to acquire both inner and outer perfections, for the fruit of the human tree hath ever been and will ever be perfections both within and without. It is not desirable that a man be left without knowledge or skills, for he is then but a barren tree. Then, so much as capacity and capability allow, ye needs must deck the tree of being with fruits such as knowledge, wisdom, spiritual perception and eloquent speech. (From a Tablet of Bahá’u’lláh – translated from the Persian)
There is a purpose to this acquisition of knowledge. It is intended to unify. Rather like those pro-education commercials that used to run on TV, Bahá’u’lláh suggests that the more you know, the more progress you will make as a society.
Man is the supreme Talisman. Lack of a proper education hath, however, deprived him of that which he doth inherently possess. Through a word proceeding out of the mouth of God he was called into being; by one word more he was guided to recognize the Source of his education; by yet another word his station and destiny were safeguarded. The Great Being saith: Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom. If any man were to meditate on that which the Scriptures, sent down from the heaven of God’s holy Will, have revealed, he would readily recognize that their purpose is that all men shall be regarded as one soul, so that the seal bearing the words “The Kingdom shall be God’s” may be stamped on every heart, and the light of Divine bounty, of grace, and mercy may envelop all mankind.” (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings CXXII)
This passage states a real-world goal of education: “that all men shall be regarded as one soul”. Bahá’u’lláh regarded education and the acquisition of knowledge as a prerequisite for human unity and world peace. His son, Abdu’l-Bahá, enlarged on this during his speaking tour of the US and Europe 100 years ago, and suggests why knowledge can play a key role in establishing unity.
Bahá’u’lláh has announced that inasmuch as ignorance and lack of education are barriers of separation among mankind, all must receive training and instruction. Through this provision the lack of mutual understanding will be remedied and the unity of mankind furthered and advanced. Universal education is a universal law….
(The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 300)
Bahá’ís believe that knowledge is essential to the progress of the individual and the larger communities of which the individual is a part. But this knowledge must bear fruit, for that is the goal of every human life. Hence, Abdu’l-Bahá also warns of the negative results of a lack of education, which we see in the world around us every day: ignorant prejudice, irrational fear, distrust and demonization of the “other”, scientific ignorance, etc.
In The Secret of Divine Civilization, he writes:
The primary, the most urgent requirement is the promotion of education. It is inconceivable that any nation should achieve prosperity and success unless this paramount, this fundamental concern is carried forward. The principal reason for the decline and fall of peoples is ignorance. Today the mass of the people are uniformed even as to ordinary affairs, how much less do they grasp the core of the important problems and complex needs of the time.
(The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 109)
Consider the relevance of these words at a time in which even the elected leaders of some nations revile science as evil. Consider its relevance when roughly half of Americans claim to believe in a literal reading of the creation story in Genesis, putting their beliefs in conflict with the sciences of geology, physics, paleontology and archaeology (to name but a few) and with the God-given capacity for reason that their own scriptures call upon them to use when judging truth from fiction.
More importantly, consider its relevance in a society in which at least that many people fear that more scientific knowledge will undermine their faith—pull the spiritual rug out from under their feet. When I was 19 I faced that fear first hand and found my fear to be unfounded. Certainly, an increased knowledge of science undermined very dogmas held to be true by the various churches I attended as a child, but it never violated by so much as a grain of mustard seed (a favorite measure used by Christ) the core principles of faith as set forth in scripture.
Abdu’l-Bahá suggests that if it seems science and religion are in conflict, then we are not seeing a true representation of one of both. It is our perceptions and expectations that are in error. Perhaps we have come to view a religious text as a scientific statement or we have begun to give science the attributes of a belief system.
Food for thought.
Next time: Knowledge and purpose