The Tao, Revisited

One of my friends on Facebook argued with my religion post. He thinks that I’m lumping philosophy and even science in with religion, remarking essentially — if I understand his point — that the Tao is just another word for the way things are, and saying that I’m changing the dictionary definition of religion to advance some fuzzy argument. Since he’s a smart guy, the failure to communicate must be mine.

The Tao is not simply the way things are. There would be no need for Taoism if that were true.

The Tao is the way things ought to be. You can go against the Tao, though you will cause unnecessary strife.

The Tao is not simply Nature. Nature is subject to the Tao.

The Tao is not science. Science is value-neutral; the Tao is not. It is the source of all value.

“The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao” — this is not ironic; it is a paradox. Even a word like “Tao” is an abstraction, one of the Ten Thousand Things; it is paradoxical to use a word to address non-abstraction. But what else can we do? There’s a reason this is the first line in the Tao Te Ching — it qualifies everything that is said afterward. Lao Tzu, or whoever wrote the book, seems to have been aware that he was not immune to bias and cultural context. And time has eroded the book, but not so much that it isn’t largely relevant. And its core concept is timeless.

When my daughter was little, I began a project of undoing her literalism, starting with having her question numbers almost as soon as she began to understand them. “Show me ‘two’ of the same thing.” Every real thing is unique. ‘Two’ is a useful idea, but it’s a fiction and an abstraction. A major paradox of words is that they help us to see and yet blind us to the finer distinctions of what they reveal. A “cat” does not really exist. It is a fictional set of abstractions that approach but do not actually capture the real cat that actually does exist and sits in my lap. My cat is like no other cat. Even if it had an identical twin, they would not be identical, if for no other reason than they occupy different positions in space.

Language both facilitates communication and undermines it. And this is especially true when we discuss religion. You might say “God” is an abstraction for a being that embodies the highest good. (Christians will demur, of course, because Jesus is God, the Word made Flesh, and not an abstraction at all, but that’s a long theological topic.) In any case, as soon as you’ve really gotten a grasp on God with language, you’ve lost Him, or Her. As the Tao Te Ching says, “To grasp is to let slip.” That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t grasp, just that you should hold things lightly, especially the concept of God, to best understand them.

Some — not all — atheists dismiss religion as illogical bullshit. Fine, but religion is not about logic.

There are axiomatic values. Instinct alone does not explain them and cannot promote them, nor can logic.

Religion attempts to promote axiomatic values, through rules and rituals and mythic stories. That’s what it does. That’s what my essay was saying.

As for what religion is, well, we can call it the worship of a god or gods so that atheists, or more correctly their subset known as anti-theists, can try to make their points. My observations remain unchanged.

Another friend of mine just wrote a post that seems to praise staring into the Abyss alone, without God at one’s side.

I called on the mutual antagonists Nietzsche and Macaulay to help me answer. It is an answer not to the head but to the heart, because this is not a logical argument, either way.

I say, “The Abyss stares back. It is good not to be alone.”

Then out spake brave Horatius, The Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods.”

In any case, from whence does my friend derive his value of stoically facing Death without God? It is a respectable value as far as it goes, but that is not very far.

About robertpkruger

Writer, editor, and software developer. Former president of
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