September 20, 2012

This Earthly Life and the Journey of the Soul after Death -- some reflections by John S. Hatcher, 1994

However knowledgeable we may become about the divine origins or our cosmos, however confident we may be about the destiny of humankind on this small planet, we never escape one abiding concern - that each of us will soon pass from this earthly existence. Therefore, whatever guidance and meaning religion can provide to help us conquer the challenges of our daily lives, possibly the greatest comfort it can offer is the assurance that our physical existence has a purpose, that somehow our earthly life, so fleeting and so fragile, is preparing us for something more enduring.

The Baha'i Faith has a vast amount of information to impart about the reality that awaits us after death. It is a vision that offers consolation, but it also has the power to investigate our lives here and now because it explains the relevance of our performance in this life to what we will experience in the continuation of our lives beyond physical reality.

For example, the Baha'i writings explain that our physical experience is unique. We get no second chance, no reincarnation, because we do not need it. Our brief lives, however chaotic and unjust they may sometimes seem to us, are quite adequate to provide us with the spiritual tools we will need to continue our progress in the next world. In fact, this life is important precisely because it does prepare us for the next stage of our existence in the same way that the gestation of the child in the womb prepares it for participation in this life. Yet our spiritual development is not completed in this physical life any more than the birth of an infant signals the completion of its growth. From the Baha'i view the journey of the soul is a process of endless growth and infinite possibilities. In this respect the Baha'i belief about the afterlife differs significantly from some other views, which assert that the afterlife is but a reflection of this life, a judgment: we spend eternity in some sort of heaven if we have done well, in a hell if we have not. In contrast, the Baha'i writings tell us that our lives are never static, even in the next world we will continue changing and developing. For while the human soul will never change its essence - will never become something other than a human soul - it is infinitely perfectible. We are, by nature, always in the process of becoming, and we always will be.

The encouraging part of Baha'i belief in the eternal progress of the soul is the promise of endless growth and change. The intimidating part of this belief is that we are given only one soul to work with for the rest of eternity. Whether we like ourselves or not, we are stuck with ourselves forever. This belief alone should prompt us to pay careful attention to our progress in this physical life. Since we will be born into the afterlife with the same spiritual condition we have at our body's demise, we would do well to seize every opportunity we have in this life for spiritual development so that our birth may be a felicitous occasion.

The Baha’i writings also describe some important aspects of the transition to the next stage of our existence. Baha’u’llah says that at the point or death, when the soul ceases to associate with the body, we will evaluate our lives: "It is clear and evident that all men shall, after their physical death, estimate the worth or their deeds, and realize all that their hands have wrought."[‘Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah’] Therefore, He exhorts us to evaluate our lives on a daily basis, to bring ourselves "to account each day" before we are "summoned to a reckoning; for death, unheralded, shall come upon thee and thou shalt be called to give account for thy deeds."[‘Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah’]

After death, when our souls have ceased to associate with our physical bodies, we will experience emotions appropriate to the progress we have made in our spiritual development. Baha'u'llah tells us that "the followers of the one true God shall, the moment they depart out of this life, experience such joy and gladness as would be impossible to describe, while they that live in error shall be seized with such fear and trembling, and shall be filled with such consternation, as nothing can exceed." [‘Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah’]

And what happens after our initial experience in the afterlife? The Baha'i writings hint that, among other things, we will meet other souls, continue to learn, and generally participate in the work of the divine world. Yet, exciting and encouraging as this may sound, the Baha'i writings note that we are permitted to know relatively little about the existence that awaits us. One reason for this concealment is that words are inadequate to portray spiritual reality. Baha'u'llah observes: "The nature of the soul after death can never be described, nor is it meet and permissible to reveal its whole character to the eyes of men." He also says that the world beyond "is as different from this world as this world is different from that of the child while still in the womb or its mother." [‘Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah’]

The most important reason for concealing what awaits us beyond our physical lives is the need for us to focus attention on this life. To know what awaits us might render us incapable or abiding this life, as many of those who have had "near death" experiences seem to confirm. Baha'u'liah explains that, if we were shown what awaits the souls of those who at the hour of death are "sanctified from the vain imaginings of the peoples of the world," our "whole being" would "instantly blaze out" in our great longing to attain "that most exalted, that sanctified and resplendent station." [‘Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah’]

The teachings of the Baha'i Faith cover many other subjects to help us deal effectively with the daily affairs of our lives - from laws or personal conduct and comportment to the most wide ranging issues of global peace and the governance of our planet. But underlying and giving meaning to every aspect of the Baha'I teachings is the belief in a spiritual reality. Put simply, at the core of Baha'i belief are the teachings about the existence and destiny of the human soul, a spiritual essence we can only vaguely understand in this life, because "the soul is a sign of God, a heavenly gem whose reality the most learned of men hath failed to grasp, and whose mystery no mind, however acute, can ever hope to unravel." [‘Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah’]

Nevertheless, we can know certain properties or the soul, and we can understand certain laws governing its progress. Acquiring such knowledge can have a dramatic effect on how we think about ourselves and how we conduct our lives. For example, the Baha'i writings state that, while the human soul is an emanation from God, it takes its beginning and identity at conception when the soul associates with the body. Once begun, the soul is eternal; it is not dependent on the existence or the body.

Neither is the soul's progress impaired by infirmities of mind or body. Baha'u'llah says, "Know thou that the soul or man is exalted above, and is independent of all infirmities of body or mind."[‘Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah’] These impairments do not hinder the soul's progress because the soul is not in the body. The soul associates through the body in much the same way as a light becomes apparent in a mirror or as a radio or television signal becomes perceptible through a receiver. If a mirror becomes dirty or shattered, it may not reflect the light, but the light is still resplendent. Likewise, if the television set is in disrepair, we may not be able to see a program, but the signal from the station is not adversely affected.

Since we communicate through physical means in this stage or existence, we may have trouble understanding or communicating with someone whose soul must operate through a dysfunctional body, whether that impairment results from emotional, mental, or physical infirmities. But when the association between the soul and the body ceases at death, the soul is released from this relationship and manifests its true condition. According to Baha’u’llah, "every malady afflicting the body of man is an impediment that preventeth the soul from manifesting its inherent might and power. When it leavelh the body, however, it will evince such ascendancy, and reveal such influence as no force on earth can equa1.” [‘Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah’]

The association between the soul and the body is extremely important for our spiritual development, but spiritual progress can also take place in other ways when it is not possible in this life. For example, the Baha'i writings assure us that for those who die prematurely, who are physically or mentally impaired, or who for other reasons are unable to use adequately the physical stage of existence, other means for spiritual development and enlightenment will be provided in the next stage of life.

The reason progress can take place in the afterlife is simple. All the powers that distinguish us as human beings - reason, memory, abstract thought, inventiveness, willpower - are properties of the soul, not the body. Many scientists theorize that the essential capacities or the human reality are nothing more than the powers of a highly evolved brain. The Baha'i writings assert that all distinctive human powers are functions and faculties of the soul. The brain may channel the soul's will into specific acts, but memory, thought, decisions, willpower, identity itself all derive from the soul.

All of the assertions in the Baha'i writings about the nature and eternal life of the soul may provide us with some degree of solace and encouragement as we go about the business of living our mundane lives, but they also lead us to one unavoidable question . If we are essentially spiritual beings and if our purpose in this life is to prepare for our birth into a purely spiritual reality, why would an all-powerful, all-loving God ordain that we begin our eternal lives in an environment that often seems calculated to prevent, or at least to encumber, spiritual development?

The Baha'i writings respond that we derive a number of important benefits from the physical stage of our eternal spiritual journey. Physical life is important because the soul takes its beginning here, develops the initial concepts of spirituality here, and initiates the eternal process of spiritual growth here. Physical reality is the first classroom for the foundational growth and development of the soul. It is here that we develop the capacity to recognize our spiritual nature and to exercise the responsibility we have for promoting our own spiritual development. In this context, Baha'u'llah assures us that "every man hath been, and will continue to be, able of himself to appreciate the Beauty of God, the Glorified. Had he not been endowed with such a capacity, how could he be called to account for his failure?" [‘Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah’] Severyone can recognize spirituality in some form, Baha'u'llah asserts that "the faith of no man can be conditioned by anyone except himself." [‘Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah’]

Nevertheless, we may well wonder how we could be expected to extract spiritual insights and develop spiritual attributes from our physical experience without some assistance. The Baha'i writings assure us that all the help we need is provided. In this workshop for the soul, this classroom that is physical reality, perfect Teachers, the Prophets or Manifestations of God, appear periodically in history to bring the wisest guidance for us individually and for each stage in the collective advancement of humankind on our planet.

Yet, perfect Educators that They are, these Teachers do not impose Themselves on us. They exemplify human virtue in Their own conduct. They exhort us to follow Them. They provide us with specific laws to help us use well this opportunity for development. But it is not sufficient that we merely recognize the Prophets or appreciate Their sacrificial lives. If we are to benefit from Their instruction, we are required to demonstrate our recognition through obedience to the laws and guidance that They bring. For Baha'is, belief necessitates deeds, because spiritual development is only theoretical until it is demonstrated in action. Belief is not achieved by withdrawing from the world but by actively participating in the crucible of human society. This social aspect of the soul's journey derives from the fact that we are not alone. Each of us is a member of an organic family. Our personal wellbeing is inseparable from the health of the entire human family. We function much as does a cell in the human body. The cell could hardly afford to think of its own well-being as having much meaning apart from the well-being of the body that it serves. The body provides the cell with a necessary environment, and the self-interest of the cell is inextricably bound up in the body's health. Thus we can hardly attend to our own soul's progress without simultaneously attending to the health of the society in which we live. According to Baha'u'llah, that society has now evolved into a global community in which the earth is but one household.

In general, then, the Baha'i writings teach that physical reality is not a separate or lesser creation, but rather an expression of the spiritual world in concrete terms. It is an artistic or poetic form created for the purpose of human instruction. There is nothing abhorrent or demeaning about physical reality or our appropriate use or it because the physical world is the outward, visible aspect or the eternal creation. The Baha'i writings say that the "spiritual world is like unto the phenomenal world. They are the exact counterpart of each other. Whatever objects appear in this world of existence are the outer pictures of the world of heaven." [‘Abdu’l-Baha, ‘The Promulgation of Universal Peace’, Talks delivered by ‘Abdu’l-Baha during His Visits to the United States and Canada in 1912]

There is much more to say about the Baha'i teachings on the nature of the soul and its endless journey through the worlds or God. It is, after all, an inexhaustibly fascinating subject that elicits within us the most weighty questions we can pose about our reality as human beings. What are we? What are our origins? What is our destiny individually and collectively? What part do we play in our own spiritual advancement? What effects do our actions in this life have on our experience in the world beyond? How does a loving God care for those who endure suffering, injustice, deprivation, abuse, and disability in this life? How does a just God respond to those who have perpetrated injustice, violence, and the myriad other shameful acts that give pain to others? What is the fate of those who ignore their own spiritual reality? What is the destiny of humankind on this planet? Will we encounter our loved ones in the world beyond? Will we continue to learn? Will we have access to books and learned souls? Will we have goals to achieve, a purpose? Will we have any sort of free will?

The Baha'i writings help us discover answers to these and other heartfelt questions, answers that can play an important role in helping us face meaningfully a life that sometimes does not seem to make much sense. The answers are never dogmatic. They are sometimes veiled. They always require something of us - the willingness to abandon our preconceptions, the daring to open our hearts and minds, the determination to set aside sufficient time for meditation and prayer, and the resourcefulness to apply rigorously our most subtle faculties of reason, creativity, and imagination. (Forward to ‘Life Death and Immortality, The Journey of the Soul’, compiled by Terrill Hayes, Betty Fisher, Richard Hill, Terry Cassiday)