Sunday, November 27, 2022

Advent 2022: The Tao of Catholicism

A few days ago, I whipped through C.S. Lewis's book The Abolition of Man. Considering the book was published almost 80 years ago, it felt eerily prophetic to read Lewis's warnings about untethering ourselves from the natural order of things. Lewis, using the Chinese concept of the Tao to stand in for natural law, argues that the more we attempt to detach ourselves from the Tao and claim to be able to make up our own subjective realities -- and if you're thinking of transgenderism and transhumanism at this point, you're not alone -- the more inhuman we will become, since humanity, being part of the Tao, can never separate itself from the Tao; it can only harmonize with it or come into conflict with it. And if the latter, it's a conflict we can never win.

For this viewpoint to resonate, one has to accept that there are objective and eternal truths and values in the world. The problem in our postmodern world is that this proposition is often rejected, and things aren't likely to end well for those who reject the Tao. But the problem didn't begin with postmodernism or wokeness; Lewis argues that it goes back to the dawn of the Enlightenment, when the spiritual was cast aside as primitive superstition and scientific materialism trained us only to believe in what we could perceive with our physical senses and measure in a lab. The danger in such an approach is that it desacralizes nature, turning it into an object to dissect and exploit rather than as something to respect, nurture, and harmonize ourselves with. Humans, by extension, are likewise treated as science experiments, and those conducting the experiments are able to amass significant power over humanity. But if those in power have rejected the Tao -- i.e., natural law and its eternal, unchanging, objective values -- then what will temper their use of power? If, in a postmodern world, anything goes, then we're setting the stage for a totalitarian society that exerts virtually unlimited power, unburdened by any kind of moral constraints.   

Lewis, as you probably know, was good friends with J.R.R. Tolkien, who was fresh in my mind following our family's annual Thanksgiving tradition of watching the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings film trilogy (extended editions, as is our way). Tolkien was, of course, a devout Catholic, and he called Lord of the Rings "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work." That's very obvious to someone raised Catholic and/or immersed in Catholic culture. But unlike Lewis, who tended to pound the reader over the head with religious allegory in his fictional works, Tolkien disliked allegory and instead let his religious and spiritual views speak subtly through the actions of his characters and the unfolding of his storylines. There are many parallels to Christian, and specifically Catholic, theological themes and values, but very rarely will you find a one-to-one symbolic stand-in. The strong Marian overtones in the character of Galadriel are probably as close as LOTR gets to a direct comparison to Catholicism, but the Catholic-ness of Tolkien's work is also there, more indirectly, in things like the elves' lembas bread, which sustains people physically with just a small amount, whereas the small wafer of the Eucharist sustains people spiritually; the story's many acts of redemptive suffering, an idea that's been developed in Catholicism far more than in other branches of Christianity; and the ways in which various characters express the threefold office of Christ as priest, prophet, and king, a concept that dates to the early centuries of the church. 

But even more than that, LOTR inherently promotes the Platonic ideals of goodness, truth, and beauty that the Catholic church also aspires to. 

As with LOTR's "fundamental Catholicism," though, there aren't one or two specific things you can point to and say "that's definitively where the Platonism is." It's just suffused throughout the entire tale, in a way that tells you the author has internalized those ideals in his own life so deeply that his expressing them is second nature to him. It feels natural, never forced or contrived. And I find that approach reflected in Catholicism itself, inasmuch as its theology is largely allowed to speak for itself. 

Catholicism feels emotionally and spiritually mature, in a way that many non-Catholic churches I've visited don't. I don't like going to church and leave feeling either lectured or talked down to. And I think this is why evangelical Protestant Christianity has never clicked for me. The me-and-Jesus personal-relationship emotionalism, the selective moralizing, and the overly simplistic notion that a one-time mental assent at an altar call is all you ever have to do -- well, I just think it misses the point. Catholicism has its own issues, but where I think it excels is in pursuing a deeper, rational, philosophical understanding of the divine than you can find in other flavors of Christianity. And at the same time, it allows the seeker to delve into the mysteries of the divine, in ways that stripped-down literalist Christianity are incapable of doing.

Why is that important? Well, at least for me, literalism is a frustrating dead-end that leaves you twisted up in knots as you try to rescue a God that becomes either self-contradictory or a monster. I just don't get anything out of picturing God as a petty rule enforcer, ready to send the men and women created in his image to hell for the slightest infraction. I think that completely misses the point of pursuing a relationship with the divine. The point is not to nervously walk a tightrope your whole life and hope that you don't mess up and fall. The point is to know that you will inevitably fall, and that the one who came to the world out of love provides a safety net and always helps us get back up again. And by being shown mercy, over and over, we learn over time to become more like the one who lifts us up. We imitate Christ, picking up our own crosses as he did, and strive for the ideals. We may never reach those lofty goals, but the point is to improve ourselves as we try, not to just simply say we can never do any better and thus feel justified stuck in whatever rut we find ourselves. 

If the Platonic ideals are reflected in the Trinity, I see the Father as goodness, the Son as truth, and the Spirit as beauty. The Father found his creation good because the creation arose from inherent goodness. The Son came to impart the truth -- not an exclusionary truth that condemns and limits, but one that says "no one comes to the Father but through me" because the Son represents the full truth of the divine, a truth that can be found in its fullness nowhere else. And the Spirit is the one who breathes life into creation, who comforts and nurtures -- who imbues the world with beauty. It will, incidentally, surely land me in hot water with most Catholics, but I connect with the Spirit as being the feminine aspect of the divine, seen spiritually in Sophia, the Wisdom of God, and in the human realm through the person of Mary, whom St. Maximilian Kolbe referred to as "a quasi-incarnation of the Holy Spirit" and, in my view, was not wrong.

Going back to C.S. Lewis, the eternal objective truths he spoke of in The Abolition of Man are to be found here, through the pursuit of these Platonic ideals. It's not so much that the Christian concept of God is "the truth" in opposition to the claims of competing religions, but rather that the idea of God itself points to an ideal of goodness and truth, and that the theology of Christianity orients us toward a particular pursuit of those ideals in a particular way, so that we may more fully reflect those ideals in our own lives. I find this concept of God not that dissimilar from the Neoplatonic idea of the One, the self-caused first principle that in turn was the cause for everything else in the universe, and whose truth we can perceive only through a pursuit of the good and the beautiful -- for the more beautiful something is, the closer it approaches to the Platonic ideals. Even Bishop Robert Barron has suggested that the most effective strategy for evangelization is not thumping a Bible and aggressively preaching in people's faces, but capturing people with the beautiful. Once you've done that, you can enchant them with the good, and once they've embraced the good, you can lead them to the truth. 

In seeing "God" as more like the One, an embodiment of the Platonic ideals, I understand that I probably part ways with many Christians, who would choose literalism over symbolism and abstraction. But there's no escaping the fact that my theology draws as much from the likes of Plotinus and Jung as it does from the early church fathers. It has to, because if I were forced into an exclusively literalist interpretation of Christianity, I wouldn't even be here writing this post. I feel a pull toward the theology and ethics of Christianity, and yet the only way I can stay in the fold is to approach it in my own way. The truth is that I feel more at home with the Christian mystics, like Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, who, although they most certainly conceived of God in at least some literal manner, allowed for a wider understanding of what "God" is. Catholicism also throws off some strong pagan vibes for me -- Catholicism replacing as it did the pagan worship of the Roman empire, and absorbing some of its essence in the process, and I'm OK with that -- but that's another post for another time. The point is that I've comfortably arrived at a place of thinking of myself as an outside-the-box Catholic -- sometimes way outside. 

This is also where the concept of the Tao comes into play for me in a Catholic context. If the Tao is, at its essence, the way the universe works and the objective realities that govern it, then for me there is no significant difference in my mind between "God" and Tao. They're both ways of expressing ultimate reality, and neither in turn is terribly different, in my mind, from the Neoplatonic One. The Jews just happened to personify their concept of the ultimate, where the Chinese and the Greek didn't. I suppose you could even add the Brahman of Hinduism to the discussion, inasmuch as it seems to sit somewhere between the impersonal and the personified, but I don't see any need to complicate the issue by dragging in a pantheon of foreign deities.  

There's an interesting book out there called Christ the Eternal Tao, written by an Eastern Orthodox priest who inherited a worldview that drew parallels between the Christian and Taoist traditions -- not in one of those reductionist "all religions are essentially the same" ways that dumb down religions to their lowest common denominator, but in a way that respects how the East and West have interpreted each other's concepts of the ground of all being and found them to actually be not all that dissimilar. As the author points out, the Chinese translation of the Bible begins the Gospel of John by proclaiming that "In the beginning was the Tao, and the Tao was with God, and the Tao was God." Thus is the Tao the Word, which is more than just the literal Word of God -- i.e., the Father speaking to us through the Son -- but a kind of primal order, a creative principle, that weaves the underlying fabric of the universe. 

This is a God that relies more on an apophatic theology of negation than on exacting fundamentalist claims of what God is. In other words, this kind of God is not an angry, judgmental old bearded man sitting on a cloud and keeping eternal tabs on us, but one that can only be grasped by what cannot be said about it, since its essence lies beyond any human ability to express it. Or, as the Taoists put it, "The Tao that can be spoken of is not the Tao." We can only say that it is the basis of truth and objective reality. But really, to only say that is enough. 

That being said, it also doesn't hurt, in terms of my personal spiritual worldview, that the Tao Te Ching, the central text of Taoism, regards the Tao poetically as a "Great Mother." It's always been difficult for me to conceive of the universal creative force as solely male when it's the female that gives birth. I'm sympathetic to the Hindu concept of the latent male spirit providing the raw material for creation and the active female principle shaping that material into life. But again, no need to overcomplicate things. Taoism, after all, has its concept of yin and yang, the primordial male and female principles that work in tandem to create. In Judeo-Christian terms, it's easy enough to see yang and yin, respectively, as the Father, the architect of creation; and Sophia, the Wisdom of God, hovering over the waters and breathing life into that creation. Compare Genesis 1:2 with Proverbs 8:22-31 and see if you perceive the Sophian connection. Again, this is a poetic expression of the Beginning in my mind, but it's one that allows me to comfortably remain within the spiritual tradition I was raised in.

All I can say with certainty is that I feel the need to connect to the spiritual, as I believe very strongly that material existence alone is an incomplete picture of who we humans fundamentally are. Lewis used the term "rational spirit" in The Abolition of Man, and I found that to be a very profound and succinct encapsulation of what it means to be a balanced person, one who rejects neither the material nor the spiritual worlds but sees them as a kind of yin and yang of our existence, two complementary parts of a greater whole. Allowing ourselves to harmonize with the Tao can help us achieve this balance. And it's worth noting a correlation in terminology between East and West that suggests a certain approach to living that transcends and unites cultures. Specifically, the word Tao itself suggests a Way, a path that both we and the cosmos follow; while early Christianity was also called The Way, indicating that Christians followed in the way that Christ laid out for them to follow. Christ the eternal Tao, indeed.

I'm kind of tired of writing blog posts about how I've wandered in and out of faith. The sex-abuse scandals and the seeming eagerness of the churches to shut down during the height of COVID hysteria shook what faith I had left at the time. In 2021, I was still wrestling with my internal struggle between literalist and metaphorical approaches to religion, and on whether I wanted to follow a Catholic or Orthodox path at all. At this point in my life, I'll suffice it to say that I've decided to return to church for Advent, because in such tumultuous times, I feel the need to reconnect myself with the Tao that the contemporary Western world has rejected. Why wouldn't I do that through, say, a Taoist temple instead of in a Latin Mass? Well, I hope I've made that point abundantly clear. But I've also taken to heart a bit of advice I heard years ago from the Dalai Lama, one that seemed odd at the time. Aware that a lot of Westerners were kicking the tires on Buddhism, displeased with the religious traditions of the West, he actually encouraged people to stick with the traditions of their own cultures and to strive to look more deeply into them for what they were seeking. 

That's not to say that I'm ever going to blindly take on every theological tenet of Catholicism. I've never been one to uncritically conform to someone else's worldview, religious or otherwise. Heck, I admire the Episcopal church for its ordination of women and the way it doesn't fence off the Eucharist, and at the opposite end of the spectrum I think Orthodoxy has done a better job of preserving and defending essential traditions of the faith, while being more sensible about human relationships by letting its priests be married. I also believe that Christianity ultimately boils down to observing the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount, which aligns me more with the Quakers and Anabaptists, and I hold views about Mary, the Holy Spirit, and the Sacred Feminine that simply can never square with Catholic teaching. But at the same time, Catholicism is my heritage. It was what was handed down to me. In a sense, it was what was handed down to all of us in the West. It's not an exaggeration to say that Catholicism is Western Civilization. Sometimes it gets things wrong, but when the going gets tough, I know where I'm going to declare my allegiance.

Besides that, when Cardinal Robert Sarah opines that the Christian life needs to be built on the pillars of crux, hostia, and virgo -- the cross, the communion host, and the Virgin Mary -- I find myself nodding in agreement. And the Catholic church is the only place you'll find all three. Yes, there's also Eastern Orthodoxy, but as much as I love Orthodoxy, it just isn't home. Orthodoxy also has no contemporary figures like Cardinal Sarah who resonate with me, and I absolutely love the good cardinal. He's probably too old to be in the running for the next pope, and that's a shame for the church, because I think he'd make an extraordinary leader. (Then there's the aforementioned Bishop Barron, of whom I'm also quite fond, but that's another post for another time.)

Come the New Year, I have plans to attend a Latin Mass and an Eastern Catholic Divine Liturgy once a month, while visiting the local Novus Ordo church every other week. There are things I like about all three expressions of Catholicism, and if I plan to get back into churchgoing, for spiritual as well as cultural reasons, I figure I'm going to take in the full breadth of what the church has to offer. The Tao of Catholicism, I figure, is more easily seen when immersing oneself in all of the faith's ecclesiastical forms. 

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