"O All-Sufficient One! Thou dost suffice Me in every hardship that may descend upon Me and in every affliction that may wax great before Me. Thou art My sole Companion in My loneliness, the Delight of My heart in My solitude and My Best Beloved in My prison and in My Abode. No God is there but Thee!"
"Nicolae, I don't believe in the God that you don't believe in", was how Ali-Akbar Furutan responded to his Soviet friend who asked him, "Do you believe in God". If he responded that he believed in God, he risked a visit to the gulag. If he said he didn't believe in God, he would be lying.
I tend not to use the word "God" in normal speech. It means so many different things to different people that it almost needs definition when bringing it up. I can agree with an atheist that the traditional vision of God is a false and harmful idea. When speaking to a Christian, I would profess myself as a believer in God. If that sounds confusing, keep reading.
What I actually believe about God is so different than the common understanding that I need a different word other than "God", but there is no such word available, and I'm not even sure how to articulate what I think I believe. I know what God is not, which is the superman miracle worker who manages heaven, but I also recognize that whatever I might be able to articulate about God is probably also wrong. And if God is unknowable and unarticulatable, then why even worry about it?
I've gone back and forth wondering whether figuring out God is either the most important question, or so esoteric as to be divorced from practical daily life.
After some thought, I concluded that the absence of the supernatural God of lore extends much deeper than I imagined. God has no material form, and in a sense doesn't exist in the universe. What I mean by God comes down to two things: the inherent virtues that exist potentially in all people, and the Manifestations of God.
There is a logical flow of ideas presented by Baha'u'llah in the Kitab-i-Iqan that is both oddly familiar and revolutionary in describing God. The book starts with the necessity to be detached from everything you have ever learned and try to investigate reality with an empty cup.
"...man can never hope to attain unto the knowledge of the All-Glorious, can never quaff from the stream of divine knowledge and wisdom, can never enter the abode of immortality, nor partake of the cup of divine nearness and favor, unless and until he ceases to regard the words and deeds of mortal men as a standard for the true understanding and recognition of God and His Prophets."
The second part of the book starts with the idea that there is some reality of God that is unknowable and simply beyond anyone's capability to fathom. The internal quotes here are from the Qur'an.
"To every discerning and illumined heart it is evident that God, the unknowable Essence, the divine Being, is immensely exalted beyond every human attribute, such as corporeal existence, ascent and descent, egress and regress. Far be it from His glory that human tongue should adequately recount His praise, or that human heart comprehend His fathomless mystery. He is and hath ever been veiled in the ancient eternity of His Essence, and will remain in His Reality everlastingly hidden from the sight of men. “No vision taketh in Him, but He taketh in all vision; He is the Subtile, the All-Perceiving.” No tie of direct intercourse can possibly bind Him to His creatures. He standeth exalted beyond and above all separation and union, all proximity and remoteness. No sign can indicate His presence or His absence; inasmuch as by a word of His command all that are in heaven and on earth have come to exist, and by His wish, which is the Primal Will itself, all have stepped out of utter nothingness into the realm of being, the world of the visible.
"Gracious God! How could there be conceived any existing relationship or possible connection between His Word and they that are created of it? The verse: “God would have you beware of Himself” unmistakably beareth witness to the reality of Our argument, and the words: “God was alone; there was none else besides Him” are a sure testimony of its truth. All the Prophets of God and their chosen Ones, all the divines, the sages, and the wise of every generation, unanimously recognize their inability to attain unto the comprehension of that Quintessence of all truth, and confess their incapacity to grasp Him, Who is the inmost Reality of all things."
The unknowability of the essence of God is foundational. Even the Prophets of God, who act as the Manifestations of God on earth, "confess their incapacity to grasp Him, Who is the inmost Reality of all things". If these two paragraphs were all you read, then indeed trying to understand God would seem pointless. But of course there is more.
"The door of the knowledge of the Ancient of Days being thus closed in the face of all beings, the Source of infinite grace... hath caused those luminous Gems of Holiness to appear out of the realm of the spirit, in the noble form of the human temple, and be made manifest unto all men, that they may impart unto the world the mysteries of the unchangeable Being, and tell of the subtleties of His imperishable Essence. These sanctified Mirrors, these Daysprings of ancient glory are one and all the Exponents on earth of Him Who is the central Orb of the universe, its Essence and ultimate Purpose. From Him proceed their knowledge and power; from Him is derived their sovereignty. The beauty of their countenance is but a reflection of His image, and their revelation a sign of His deathless glory. They are the Treasuries of divine knowledge, and the Repositories of celestial wisdom. Through them is transmitted a grace that is infinite, and by them is revealed the light that can never fade. Even as He hath said: “There is no distinction whatsoever between Thee and them; except that they are Thy servants, and are created of Thee.” This is the significance of the tradition: “I am He, Himself, and He is I, myself.” "
Those "luminous Gems of Holiness", "sanctified Mirrors", "Daysprings of ancient glory", and many other references, are describing a certain recurring role found throughout history, a role that Baha'u'llah says will continue to appear about every thousand years into the indefinite future. Baha'is refer to this as a Manifestation of God, a person who is born with innate spiritual perception and goes through a supernatural enlightenment that gives them perfect knowledge and insight. Like a skilled physician, they perceive the illnesses of mankind and prescribe a remedy in the form of teachings and laws that bring the highest level of spiritual civilization possible to those who respond to the message. They are always initially rejected by those in power, they are persecuted, and their religion ultimately overcomes their enemies as a new golden age dawns. Eventually, their religion becomes corrupted as spiritual life fades from the community of adherents, and the unknowable Essence again raises up another Manifestation of God to give mankind a new robe.
Baha'u'llah was a Manifestation of God, which I believe will be apparent to everyone who investigates with an open and unbiased mind on the signs of His revelation. It's not just that everything He writes is true, or connects with the heart, but the teachings as a whole are a formula that is the perfect cure for the world we live in. Whether or not I believe in "God" or an afterlife seems sort of irrelevant. Living according to the teachings of Baha'u'llah is the best way to live. Reading the Baha'i writings brings the most joy and insight of anything I've experienced. In a sense, I believe in God because Baha'u'llah tells me about God, and He goes on to say that God is potentially inside me, closer to me than myself.
"How resplendent the luminaries of knowledge that shine in an atom, and how vast the oceans of wisdom that surge within a drop! To a supreme degree is this true of man, who, among all created things, hath been invested with the robe of such gifts, and hath been singled out for the glory of such distinction. For in him are potentially revealed all the attributes and names of God to a degree that no other created being hath excelled or surpassed. All these names and attributes are applicable to him. Even as He hath said: “Man is My mystery, and I am his mystery.” Manifold are the verses that have been repeatedly revealed in all the heavenly Books and the holy Scriptures, expressive of this most subtle and lofty theme. Even as He hath revealed: “We will surely show them Our signs in the world and within themselves.” Again He saith: “And also in your own selves: will ye not then behold the signs of God?” And yet again He revealeth: “And be ye not like those who forget God, and whom He hath therefore caused to forget their own selves.” In this connection, He Who is the eternal King—may the souls of all that dwell within the mystic Tabernacle be a sacrifice unto Him—hath spoken: “He hath known God who hath known himself.”
"I swear by God, O esteemed and honored friend! Shouldst thou ponder these words in thine heart, thou wilt of a certainty find the doors of divine wisdom and infinite knowledge flung open before thy face."
What can be known of God are attributes of God, also known as virtues. In the New Testament Paul says, "God is love." (check out the video, you won't regret it) Love is available to everyone, and these qualities are infinite. We never attain "love" or "kindness" or "justice" or "unity", we're just always growing closer and closer to them. It is these virtues that is the goal of our lives individually and collectively. Virtues bring us a joy that never fades. If God is unknowable, and the attributes of God are knowable, then virtues are all we can know of God. Though these virtues are not God, when we talk about God, we're talking about these virtues. There is a Baha'i prayer that reads, "O God, my God, my Beloved, my heart's Desire." I know that there is some unknowable essence to God, but to me this prayer is not talking to something outside of myself or outside of my ability to understand. My beloved and heart's desire is the recognition of the message coming through Baha'u'llah that ignites my internal virtue candle. It brings wonder, amazement, submission, and all the feelings. To a lesser extent, these virtues and contentment can be achieved through scientific investigation, music, and art, disconnected from direct knowledge of one of the Manifestations of God, because these signs of God are visible everywhere to a degree.
One last quote. Here Baha'u'llah lays out some of the same ideas already discussed with different wording and emphasis. This is found in Gleanings.
[God] chose to confer upon man the unique distinction and capacity to know Him and to love Him—a capacity that must needs be regarded as the generating impulse and the primary purpose underlying the whole of creation.… Upon the inmost reality of each and every created thing He hath shed the light of one of His names, and made it a recipient of the glory of one of His attributes. Upon the reality of man, however, He hath focused the radiance of all of His names and attributes, and made it a mirror of His own Self. Alone of all created things man hath been singled out for so great a favor, so enduring a bounty.
These energies with which the Daystar of Divine bounty and Source of heavenly guidance hath endowed the reality of man lie, however, latent within him, even as the flame is hidden within the candle and the rays of light are potentially present in the lamp. The radiance of these energies may be obscured by worldly desires even as the light of the sun can be concealed beneath the dust and dross which cover the mirror. Neither the candle nor the lamp can be lighted through their own unaided efforts, nor can it ever be possible for the mirror to free itself from its dross. It is clear and evident that until a fire is kindled the lamp will never be ignited, and unless the dross is blotted out from the face of the mirror it can never represent the image of the sun nor reflect its light and glory.
And since there can be no tie of direct intercourse to bind the one true God with His creation, and no resemblance whatever can exist between the transient and the Eternal, the contingent and the Absolute, He hath ordained that in every age and dispensation a pure and stainless Soul be made manifest in the kingdoms of earth and heaven. Unto this subtle, this mysterious and ethereal Being He hath assigned a twofold nature; the physical, pertaining to the world of matter, and the spiritual, which is born of the substance of God Himself. He hath, moreover, conferred upon Him a double station. The first station, which is related to His innermost reality, representeth Him as One Whose voice is the voice of God Himself. To this testifieth the tradition: “Manifold and mysterious is My relationship with God. I am He, Himself, and He is I, Myself, except that I am that I am, and He is that He is.” And in like manner, the words: “Arise, O Muḥammad, for lo, the Lover and the Beloved are joined together and made one in Thee.” He similarly saith: “There is no distinction whatsoever between Thee and Them, except that They are Thy Servants.” The second station is the human station, exemplified by the following verses: “I am but a man like you.” “Say, praise be to my Lord! Am I more than a man, an apostle?” These Essences of Detachment, these resplendent Realities are the channels of God’s all-pervasive grace. Led by the light of unfailing guidance, and invested with supreme sovereignty, They are commissioned to use the inspiration of Their words, the effusions of Their infallible grace and the sanctifying breeze of Their Revelation for the cleansing of every longing heart and receptive spirit from the dross and dust of earthly cares and limitations. Then, and only then, will the Trust of God, latent in the reality of man, emerge, as resplendent as the rising Orb of Divine Revelation, from behind the veil of concealment, and implant the ensign of its revealed glory upon the summits of men’s hearts.