One hard and fast principle that Baha’u’llah emphasises repeatedly is that the essence of God is unknowable to all created things without exception. Even the prophets have no access to, or knowledge of, the essence of God. The reason for this is that God’s essence transcends all of creation. In other words, God’s essence should not be thought of as the essence of what exists. Rather, God’s essence is ‘outside of’, or beyond, what exists. So much so that there is no link at all between what exists and the essence of God. Baha’u’llah sums up this idea in the following passage.
“Between him [God] and his creation there is no relationship, no link, no direction, no allusion, and no indication… The Absolute Truth remains in the heights of the sovereignty of exaltation, and his unity is sanctified above the knowledge of contingent beings. He shall ever be purified, in the sublimity of his own unattainable and sovereign nobility, from the perception of all beings.”Baha’u’llah: Commentary on a Verse of Rumi, paragraph 17
As a result, when we speak of God’s essence, we really have no idea what we are talking about and no way to find out.
Nevertheless, at the time of Baha’u’llah, some mystics held a worldview in which creation was linked to the essence of God. They saw existence as a giant unity called the oneness of being, which stretched from God’s existence at one end right through to the existence of things at the other. In this view, the existence that makes up the essence of God and the existence that makes up everything else is the same reality. God’s essence is like a vast sea and created things are like its waves. The mystics believed that their spiritual goal was to become united with the sea, merging their existence in some way with God’s existence. Baha’u’llah spent much time trying to explain that this was not the case. In the following passage, he describes God’s essence as a place of fire where human beings would be instantly consumed. His point is that, no matter how high a mystic travels on the spiritual path toward God, that person can never reach “the Center of Existence” (ie, the essence of God).
“If they [the mystics] travel from pre-eternity unto everlasting perpetuity, they will never arrive at the Axis of Being and the Center of Existence, on whose right surge the oceans of splendor and on whose left flow the rivers of might. No one can dismount at his court, how much less at his own station. He dwells upon the ark of fire, sails on seas of flame in a fiery world, and walks in burning heavens.”Baha’u’llah: Gems of the Mysteries, paragraph 84
This is where the attributes come in. Given that the essence of God transcends creation and that we have no way of knowing anything about it, we must turn our attention to the divine attributes. These attributes are a different reality to the divine essence, but give us a way to understand God. They are commonly thought of as God’s perfections. They are the spiritual realities we refer to as love, wisdom, justice, forgiveness, power, majesty, knowledge, speech, will and the like. The attributes form the basis of the names of God; for example, Almighty, All-knowing One, Lord, Forgiver, Word.
(Written for the book sometime in 2015.)