“Thou art what Thou art.”
Let’s put it in the record right off the bat. I haven’t got the faintest idea about God! I admit knowing nothing of the Unknowable. Yet somehow my heart rests in deep satisfaction born of my utter cluelessness. The cluelessness is strangely liberating. Blissfully ignorant though I may be of Its nature, yet I am stirred to my depths when Bahá’u’lláh, in words at once mind-boggling and awe-inspiring, hints at that Essence which is shrouded behind an impenetrable veil. I am led to humbly acquiesce in the compelling truth that there is that ’Something’ that exceeds everything that I can ever hope to muster in Its praise – the most lyrical verses of poetry, the most mystical of meditations, the most soul-stirring of human experiences, the most awesome of spiritual feelings. Even the abstrusest of allegories. The great prophets, holy ones and sages of old have given that undefinable Something, that hidden Essence, a veritable catalogue of labels that have steadfastly withstood the test of time. Alláh, YHVH, Brahman, Ātman, The Buddha-dhātu, The Great Spirit.
Indeed all of us seem to have been graced with a paradoxical intuitive faculty of grasping that there’s Something beyond our grasp. Something that is nothing less than Beauty, Love, Power, Everlasting Father and Tender-loving Mother. But rather something beyond these. At its keenest and purest, this intuition seems just as strong as the intuition of our own existence. An acute sense of our own being is, in fact, one of total ’dependency’ and ’createdness’. Createdness by something far beyond our greatest human powers to create. Yet this intuition, at least for yours truly, is also easily clouded by my own caprice, by a life of material comforts and self-important ‘busyness’ with pursuits that are, in the light of Eternity, embarrassingly trivial. Like the windshield that gets always plastered with bugs when driving too fast.
Isaiah aptly declared: “Truly, thou art a God who hidest thyself, O God of Israel, the Saviour” (Isaiah 45:15). Apophatic (negative) theology is a sort of anti-theology where even the greatest attributes and names of God tell us not what God is, but what God is not. God is nothing less than them. It is the only known theology that doesn’t really get lost in the quagmire of intellectualizations and gratuitous doctrinal hairsplitting. Bahya ibn Pakudah (a Medieval Jewish philosopher in the Islamic world) glorified our profound ignorance of God’s Essence: “The essence of your knowledge of Him, O my brother, is your firm admission that you are completely ignorant of His true essence.” In Church history similar ideas are found in the spiritual tapestry evocatively painted by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and Meister Eckhart. But negative theology is in fact way older. “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” was God’s answer to Moses when he inquired of His name. “I am that I am.” (Or “I will be that I will be.”) (Exodus 3:12). Basically, “I am that I am” is the Biblical equivalent of the Hindu “neti neti” (“not this, not that”) which is a mantra of Jyana Yoga found in the Upanishads. The “neti neti” mantra repeats the powerfully simple acknowledgement of the namelessness of God. No name nor concept, no matter how superlative or wonderful, due to the limitations of human language and comprehension, can adequately describe God. Hence God is “not this” and “not that”. God just, well… is! The Qur’anic equivalent is found in verse 6:103. “No vision taketh in Him, but He taketh in all vision.” Guru Nanak, the sage regarded as the founder of Sikhism, said: “If anyone presumes to describe God, he shall be known the greatest fool of fools” (Guru Granth Sahib, 26). Bahá’u’lláh revealed in the Arabic Hidden Words: “…souls shall be perturbed as they make mention of Me. For minds cannot grasp Me nor hearts contain Me.”
Mystical traditions of many faiths offer thirsty spiritual seekers the personal privilege of “experiencing” God as long as they observe a set of highly refined meditative techniques. But how can our imperfect capacity of experiencing, even at its maximum receptivity, possibly experience Perfection? Unless of course we have the hubris to claim perfection to our inner capacities. How can the All-Transcending possibly be reduced to a human feeling – no matter how meaningful and powerful? Unless of course He is not All-Transcending after all. And how can the One be divisible into parts, some of which can be “experienced” whilst others remain elusive. Can He be relegated to a soothing feeling of comfort to be purchased by the needy spiritual shopper? Some indeed find it distressing when they can’t put their finger on God, when they can’t feel Him. The same would sincerely regard their most mystical and wonderful experiences as “God experiences”. Yet God’s unknowability and hiddenness neither means that He is some awkwardly distant and impersonal deity reigning indifferently from afar. Bahá’u'lláh gives us the powerful assurance that God is “nearer unto all things than they are unto themselves.” According to the Qur’án, God is closer to us than our jugular vein. But does this mean He is inside us? Bahá’u'lláh responds with an unequivocal “Nay.” God can never be contained. He doesn’t literally reside within us, or enter us like a draught of water trickling down our gullet. How could the Unconstrained be contained? Cookies are contained in a cookie jar. God is neither a cookie nor a jar. ‘Containment’ simply does not apply to God, the Creator of the very notion of ‘containing’.
Nearness, distance and containment are simply features of the corporeal universe. God is not prisoned by them. Even the ideas of “experiencing” (God) or “union” (with God) dabble with primitive qualities in the Divine scheme of things which at best characterize the natural world and its creatures. A raindrop falling onto a puddle or a burning match thrown into a fireplace is a union. God is not a puddle. A mongoose experiences ecstacy while mating. God is not just a higher form of mongoose merriness. How can a created law that governs a fleeting flame and breeding mongeese possibly ”govern” its Creator and His relation to man? Yet, Bahá’u’lláh is equally clear that “separation” and “distance”, just like “union” and “nearness”, are merely qualities of the created world which cannot describe God’s relationship with us. Chocolate chips in a chocolate chip cookie are separate from one another. I am willing to bet more than a shekel (metaphorically) that God is not a chocolate chip. Quite simply, worldly concepts do not “bind” God and his relation to man. Some of the greatest humanly conceivable qualities that are often, and confidently, cited to describe God and our relationship to Him, remain ultimately more applicable to liquids, gases and wildlife in the savannah. Not God.
But all these natural phenomena serve as an eloquent allegory of something immensely powerful, beautiful and true. Yet something that, according to Bahá’u'lláh, is “coarser than clay” compared to God’s True Self. They narrate to us, in various degrees of imperfection, about the purest of ideas, the highest of virtues, the greatest of qualities, which we can know and increasingly emulate in our daily lives. They tell us of a Reality Which manifests all created attributes to an infinite degree. Some call it the First Creation. Plato called it ‘pure forms’ or eidos, Philo of Alexandria and St. John called it Logos or the Word, some Jewish traditions call it מַלְאָךְ יהוה or mal’ak YHVH, (the Angel of the Lord), Islamic tradition calls it سدرة المنتهى or the Sadratu’l-Muntahá (‘The Divine Lote-Tree’ or ‘the Point beyond which there is no passing’), whilst Hindu and Buddhist traditions call it nirvana or nibbana, respectively. The Bahá’í tradition calls it Mazhar Eláhi — the Manifestation of God. This Reality manifests God’s attributes in a form understandable to man. It even assumes the humble form of man and makes a regular appearance once in roughly a millennium. It can be accessed, experienced, conceived and felt to the extent our hearts are pure and receptive. The ecstatic experience of this Reality has been labelled alternatively as ‘moksha’, ‘enlightenment’, ‘Neshamah Yeseira’, ‘rapture’, ‘theosis’, ‘taqwa’ and the like, depending on faith tradition. It is the experience of true Beauty, Love, Power, Peace, Knowledge, Wisdom, which we are gifted every so often in our deepest meditations of Holy Scripture, and our most meaningful encounters with people and nature. It is only human to call that Beauty and Peace God. Most mystics have. Yet even the Word is but a whisper of its Utterer, a distant shadow of Him Whom “Hideth Himself”.
Bahá’u'lláh likens the Manifestation of God to the Rays of the Sun. Indeed, we can all delight in the warmth, and bask in the brightness of the Sun’s rays. They are in fact imperative to our very survival. But only at a gracious and carefully measured distance from the actual glory and heat of the Sun. The Sun’s true brilliance and overpowering heat far surpass anything that our senses, nay our very being, is ever equipped to face. Thank God! Truly His greatest favour to us must be that His indescribably glorious Self remains strictly Inaccessible. Unknowable. Unfathomable. Hidden. “The door is closed, and seeking is forbidden.” Ya Bahá’u'l-Abhá!
“Ten thousand Prophets, each a Moses, are thunderstruck upon the Sinai of their search at God’s forbidding voice, ‘Thou shalt never behold Me!’; whilst a myriad Messengers, each as great as Jesus, stand dismayed upon their heavenly thrones by the interdiction ‘Mine Essence thou shalt never apprehend!’” -Bahá’u'lláh
“He is God.” – Bahá’u’lláh
(calligraphy by Burhan Zahrai)