Does Imagination Lead Toward Spiritual Truth or Away From It?

The human spirit possesses a profound inner power: the imagination. What impact do our imaginations have on our spiritual lives?

Imagination can be construed as the guiding force and ability in the lofty perceptions of the mystic — but it can also be viewed as the faculty of the mind that leads people away from the truth. In the writings of the Baha’i Faith, founded in the 19th century by Baha’u’llah and continued in the 20th century by Abdu’l-Baha, his son and successor, we can also see this dual aspect of imagination in the quest for truth.

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Abdu’l-Baha said that the human mind, and hence imagination, are not the soul itself — but are faculties of the soul:

Now regarding the question whether the faculties of the mind and the human soul are one and the same. These faculties are but the inherent properties of the soul, such as the power of imagination, of thought, of understanding; powers that are the essential requisites of the reality of man, even as the solar ray is the inherent property of the sun. 

So imagination is an inner power — the power by which we conceive things. 

No doubt, our imaginations form the medium through which scientific discoveries are postulated and works of art are brought into being. On the other hand, imagination can limit people and cut them off from the truth. Baha’u’llah emphasized that we should not be led astray by what he called our “vain imaginations:” 

O friends! Be not careless of the virtues with which ye have been endowed, neither be neglectful of your high destiny. Suffer not your labors to be wasted through the vain imaginations which certain hearts have devised.

He urged people to search for the truth and not allow themselves to get lost in ideas that take them away from reality. The Baha’i writings about imagination imply that this inner faculty can contribute to meaning or create meaninglessness in life — therefore, imagination must be our servant and not our master. 

In the Baha’i view of life, every human being has a soul, a single spiritual element at the core of our existence. The soul is the permanent, eternal part of us; it is born, but it never dies; it is connected with the body but does not exist in the body. In the mother’s womb, we develop all the powers we need for this world, and in this physical existence, we develop all the powers we need for the next world. The purpose of life is to purify and develop the soul through loving God, refining our characters, and serving humanity with virtuous deeds.

Our imagination helps us comprehend reality — it is part of the process by which we perceive, think, and thus find truth. In this sense, imagination is an agent of reality and not a mere delusional thought process.

However, while the imagination enables us to comprehend reality, it can also debar us from it. 

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We can imagine things that are not real and become caught and even trapped by our imagination, unable to change our perceptions and beliefs. This is especially true of our conception and understanding of God. The Baha’i writings describe God as unknowable:

To every discerning and illuminated 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.

Even the most lofty praises and profound conceptions people make about the Creator cannot capture His essence. As humans who are imperfect and limited, we cannot directly know God: the perfect and limitless. Anything that we think about God is not God — it is a creation of our own imagination. Abdu’l-Baha said:

The pictures of Divinity that come to our mind are the product of our fancy; they exist in the realm of our imagination. They are not adequate to the Truth; truth in its essence cannot be put into words.That Essence of the Divine Entity and the Unseen of the unseen is holy above imagination and is beyond thought.

Similarly, in a prayer to God, Baha’u’llah said

Thou hast, verily, been at all times, and wilt everlastingly continue to remain, immensely exalted beyond and above all comparison and likeness, above all imagination of parity or resemblance.

The Baha’i teachings proclaim that the only way we can know God is to know God’s prophets, messengers, and manifestations. They are the founders of many of the world’s major world religions, including Krishna, Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, and Baha’u’llah, to name a few. They are the messengers and universal teachers that God sends to the world to guide humanity. They are the only beings who have a direct connection to the Creator and thus can show us the way to God. These holy manifestations reveal the Word of God. 

Through these intermediaries, these manifestations, we can approach God, for our unaided imaginations cannot grasp the Divine. Abdu’l-Baha wrote:

Accordingly all these attributes, names, praises and eulogies apply to the Places of Manifestation; and all that we imagine and suppose beside them is mere imagination, for we have no means of comprehending that which is invisible and inaccessible … if we imagine a Divine Reality outside of the Holy Manifestations, it is pure imagination.

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