The Baha'i Faith, claiming to be God's most recent message to humanity, is not just another in a series. It represents the culmination of a six-thousand year cycle of Prophets, and the transition into a new universal cycle. While the religion is now in its infancy, taking a broad view of where it falls in history provides a humbling experience to any believer, while an even broader view of the universe stirs up an unparalleled sense of awe.
As traditional religion devolves into an irrational superstition, and a strictly materialistic ideology begins to dominate society, the Baha'i Faith teaches the harmony of science and religion. True religion and science must agree, because the truth is one.
"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."(Gen 1:1)
A key to understanding the books of Moses is what Baha'is call progresive revelation: that religious truth is relative to the time of revelation. The people of the time of Moses were obsessed with spiritism and idol worship, with the spiritual and intellectual capacity of today's children. `Abdu'l-Baha said,
"Moses established laws and ordinances; these gave life to the people of Israel, and led them to the highest possible degree of civilization at that period."(Some Answered Questions, p. 14)
In this context the stories of Genesis - and other creation myths - are interpreted as spiritual allegories, in a way that outwardly satisfied people's curiosity of history, while inwardly describing spiritual truths that uplifted society. The common understanding at the time was of the world as an island continent on a flat disc with infinite water, surrounded by a dome with stars embedded in its surface. A modern understanding of how the world developed was not only impossible but unnecessary at the time. The account of Genesis had the advantage of conveying the essential spiritual truths about humanity's development with broad symbolism, and avoided the detail that was beyond the capacity to understand. `Abdu'l-Baha said,
"Moses taught that the world was brought into existence in the six days of creation. This is an allegory, a symbolic form of the ancient truth that the world evolved gradually... We thus have a progressive process of creation, and not a one-time happening. Moses' days of creation represent time spans of millions of years."(Science and Religion, p. 90)
As humanity has progressed with a new capacity to understand its environment, the Baha'i teachings reveal new truths about the world. Baha'u'llah teaches that the physical universe is without beginning or end, and confirms the scientists who claim that the earth developed over millions and billions of years. Yet similar to Moses, Baha'u'llah's teachings focus on the spiritual development of society and the control of one's lower nature.
On the nature of creation and existence, `Abdu'l-Baha says,
"If we could imagine a time when no beings existed, this imagination would be the denial of the Divinity of God. Moreover, absolute non-existence cannot become existence. If the beings were absolutely non-existent, existence would not have come into being."
Accordingly, the story of Adam and Eve contains "divine mysteries and universal meanings, and it is capable of marvelous explanations," but is simply a symbol, and cannot be reasonably imagined as a historical account.
On the origin of humans, Baha'u'llah similarly confirms biological development of humans over millions of years in different forms. He also taught that the human species was always distinct from the animal kingdom in potentiality. Although there is some debate in interpretation, `Abdu'l-Baha seems to suggest that humans have a unique line of descent to some seed-like form, with ancestry separate from animals.
Some of the most striking and direct comments on evolution come from `Abdu'l-Baha, where he says that man's existence on the earth has developed over a long time. He says,
"Between man and the ape, however, there is one link missing, and to the present time scientists have not been able to discover it..."The philosophers of the Orient in reply to those of the western world say: Let us suppose that the human anatomy was primordially different from its present form, that it was gradually transformed from one stage to another until it attained its present likeness, that at one time it was similar to a fish, later an invertebrate and finally human. This anatomical evolution or progression does not alter or affect the statement that the development of man was always human in type and biological in progression. For the human embryo when examined microscopically is at first a mere germ or worm. Gradually as it develops it shows certain divisions; rudiments of hands and feet appear--that is to say, an upper and a lower part are distinguishable. Afterward it undergoes certain distinct changes until it reaches its actual human form and is born into this world. But at all times, even when the embryo resembled a worm, it was human in potentiality and character, not animal. The forms assumed by the human embryo in its successive changes do not prove that it is animal in its essential character. Throughout this progression there has been a transference of type, a conservation of species or kind. Realizing this we may acknowledge the fact that at one time man was an inmate of the sea, at another period an invertebrate, then a vertebrate and finally a human being standing erect... Therefore, in the protoplasm, man is man. Conservation of species demands it."The lost link of Darwinian theory is itself a proof that man is not an animal. How is it possible to have all the links present and that important link absent? Its absence is an indication that man has never been an animal. It will never be found."(Promulgation of Universal Peace, pp. 358-359)
This statement was delivered in a speech in 1912. These ideas brought harmony to the diverging forces of science and religion at the time. What you might call the Baha'i position on the debate over evolution and religion is distinctly different from the atheistic view of purposelessness and also at variance with young-earth creationists. If `Abdu'l-Baha is correct about human evolution, then humans came about through natural laws, but different forces than currently assumed.
The rational soul, according to Baha'u'llah, gives humans an intelligence that makes discoveries and penetrates the reality of things. Animals and humans share the same physical powers, but an animal cannot evolve the intellectual powers of humans, who have the freewill to overcome the animalistic nature of the body.
One evidence of this power is contemplation and reflection, as described by `Abdu'l-Baha,
"It is clear that when man is thinking, it is as though he were consulting with some other person. With whom is he consulting? It is evident that it is another reality or one aside from this body with whom he enters into consultation when he thinks, 'Shall I do this work or not?' 'What will be the result of my doing this?' ... And then that reality in man communicates its opinion to him concerning the point at issue. Therefore that reality in man is clearly and obviously other than his body, an ego with which man enters into consultation and whose opinion man seeks."(Foundations of World Unity, p. 109)
Origins of Life
Humans developed on earth over millions of years, alongside plants and animals. A question then arises: how did it all get here? After all, the story of Genesis came to satisfy the most fundamental controversy. Even with a childish understanding of the world around them, the nomadic followers of Moses could see that they came from their parents, who came from their grandparents, etc. The story of Adam explained the first seed of life, by a literal account six thousand years ago. This question is where the worlds of science and religion collide.
Most scientific theories about the origins of life propose a spontaneous creation of simple molecules in high levels of energy. Another theory proposes that the seeds of life came to earth on meteorites. In other words, the potential for life is either inherent in the planet, or the seeds of life are so prevalent that they permeate the universe, the latter theory appropriately called panspermia. Either way, the implications are incredibly profound. This situation still lacks an impulse to the universe, which, according to Baha'u'llah, is a mystery that can never be fully comprehended. `Abdu'l-Baha elaborates on the idea of creation,
"No Divinity can be conceived as separate from creation, for otherwise it would be like imagining an empire without a people... So, likewise, if we say there was a time when God had no creation or created beings, a time when there were no recipients of His bounties and that His names and attributes had not been manifested, this would be equivalent to a complete denial of Divinity, for it would mean that Divinity is accidental. To explain it still more clearly, if we think that fifty thousand years ago or one hundred thousand years ago there was no creation, that there were then no worlds, no human beings, no animals, this thought of ours would mean that previous to that period there was no Divinity... It is, therefore, evident that inasmuch as the reality of Divinity is without a beginning, creation is also without a beginning. This is as clear as the sun. When we contemplate this vast machinery of omnipresent power, perceive this illimitable space and its innumerable worlds, it will become evident to us that the lifetime of this infinite creation is more than six thousand years."(Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 470)
As well as a timeless creation, the universe is also described as having no end.
The issue of extraterrestrial life is inextricably bound up with the subject of creation and evolution. Baha'u'llah made a dramatic statement about life in the universe,
"The learned men, that have fixed at several thousand years the life of this earth, have failed, throughout the long period of their observation, to consider either the number or the age of the other planets. Consider, moreover, the manifold divergencies that have resulted from the theories propounded by these men. Know thou that every fixed star hath its own planets, and every planet its own creatures, whose number no man can compute."(Gleanings, p. 163)
It was over a century after Baha'u'llah's writing this that science confirmed the nebular hypothesis, which states that the formation of planets is a natural part of star formation. As previously described, if life on earth developed inherently or externally, it is a logical conclusion that the same potential for life exists everywhere in the universe. Clearly, though, life as we understand it could not survive to the same extent on Jupiter, with clouds of ammonia. `Abdu'l-Baha taught that life develops on other planets according to the environment (note: this is unauthenticated),
"The earth has its inhabitants, the water and the air contain many living beings and all the elements have their nature spirits, then how is it possible to conceive that these stupendous stellar bodies are not inhabited? Verily, they are peopled, but let it be known that the dwellers accord with the elements of their respective spheres. These living beings do not have states of consciousness like unto those who live on the surface of this globe: the power of adaptation and environment moulds their bodies and states of consciousness, just as our bodies and minds are suited to our planet. For example, we have birds that live in the air, those that live on the earth and those that live in the sea... The components of the sun differ from those of this earth, for there are certain light and life-giving elements radiating from the sun. Exactly the same elements may exist in two bodies, but in varying quantities. For instance, there is fire and air in water, but the allotted measure is small in proportion. They have discovered that there is a great quantity of radium in the sun; the same element is found on the earth, but in a much smaller degree. Beings who inhabit those distant luminous bodies are attuned to the elements that have gone into their composition of their respective spheres."(Divine Philosophy, pp. 114-115)
The nature of extraterrestrial life remains elusive, but it's clear that there are creatures in the universe that have similar intellectual powers and spiritual perception that humans have on earth. Given the infinite time span of the universe, it's obvious that other planets have gone through a similar process of evolution with Manifestations of God guiding them through various stages of unity until a universal cycle culminates in a planet-wide unity, which is the transition to a new era, a new universal spiritual cycle of the planet. Other planets have progressed past that cycle into further cycles that are beyond the dimmest comprehension of humans at this time.
The Adamic cycle began about six thousand years ago, and its supreme Manifestation is Baha'u'llah. The Baha'i cycle will span half a million years, and Manifestations of God will appear about every thousand years during that time.