Sometimes you just have to read … and read …

Before I write, I try to have something worth saying. And before I decide whether something is worth saying, I try to spend some time reading up on what others have said about it. Sometimes I discover that someone smarter or wiser or better spoken has said it better, and I limit myself to pondering that and perhaps pointing others to it. Sometimes I encounter challenges, and I put the thing away, hoping to revisit it after further thought and investigation. Sometimes I find that I was just plain wrong, and I discard it with pleasure. Occasionally I’m reassured that what I thought I had to say is sound and worth adding to the conversation, and I’ll write it up.

And sometimes I’ll discover that the thing points to something much more profound, an idea that I shouldn’t even raise without a far deeper understanding of it. If I should ever raise it at all. These are the times at which the blog goes quiet, while I read and read and read.

I wanted to write more about God’s economy and the need to align ourselves with the grain of the universe. But at the same time I happened to read a small book by Toinette Lippe called Caught in the Act, a collection of essays about simple living. The book is a sort of sequel to her Nothing Left Over: A Plain and Simple Life, which I read next. Lippe’s thinking is heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism, but as I read I thought, wow, her descriptions of aligning one’s life with the Tao sure resonate with my own thinking about coming into alignment with the grain of the universe. And then I remembered: wasn’t the Tao a prominent theme in C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man? So I re-read that, and was reassured that the Tao is in fact God’s economy, and that I’m not the first to notice this.

Much has been written about the Tao, of course. Not so much from a Christian perspective, but some. Thomas Merton spent the final part of his life exploring the connections between the Tao and Christian mysticism, writing several helpful books. And there is a book I’m waiting on called Christ the Eternal Tao, by an Eastern Orthodox monk, which interprets the teachings of the Tao Te Ching in Christian form. (For a taste of this, see this lecture transcript.)

There’s a lot of mysticism to wade through, and I continue to hold that at arm’s length—not because I discount it, but because I am not yet equipped to grasp it at any level. Too much groundwork yet to be done. And since the groundwork is beneficial in itself, I’m happy to putter along at the lower levels, trusting that what I absorb will eventually open my eyes to see accurately what is and isn’t going on further up and further in.

Meanwhile, there is so much to be learned simply by studying the tension between the Taoist philosophers and Confucianism, a social system built on the foundation of the Tao. The philosophers say that by trying to systematize the Tao, by trying to turn it into a set of rules for living in harmony with the Tao, they produced the opposite effect. In T.S. Eliot’s words, the Confucianists tried “to escape / from the darkness outside and within / by dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.” I’ve know for a long time that this was the problem with systems. But the Taoist philosophers have much to say about why this happens, which makes me an eager audience for their teachings.

Anyway, that’s a taste of what I’ve been exploring during this period of radio silence.

2 thoughts on “Sometimes you just have to read … and read …

  1. Gary Snyder’s friend, Wendell Berry, Kentucky farmer, philosopher and poet, recognized that the Tao was “God’s Economy.”

    From Two Economies, pdf link below:

    “Though I hope that my insistence on the usefulness of the term, the
    Kingdom of God, will be understood, I must acknowledge that the term
    is local, in the sense that it is fully available only to those whose languages
    are involved in Western or Biblical tradition. A person of Eastern heritage,
    for example, might speak of the totality of all creation, visible and invisible,
    as “the Tao.” I am well aware also that many people would not willingly
    use either term, or any such term. For these reasons, I do not want
    to make a statement that is specially or exclusively Biblical, and so I would
    like now to introduce a more culturally neutral term for that economy that
    I have been calling the Kingdom of God. Sometimes, in thinking about
    it, I have called it the Great Economy, which is the name I am going to
    make do with here—though I will remain under the personal necessity
    of Biblical reference. And that, I think, must be one of my points: we can
    name it whatever we wish, but we cannot define it except by way of a
    religious tradition. The Great Economy, like the Tao or the Kingdom of
    God, is both known and unknown, visible and invisible,
    comprehensible and mysterious. It is, thus, the ultimate condition of our
    experience and of the practical questions rising from our experience, and
    it imposes on our consideration of those questions an extremity of
    seriousness and an extremity of humility.

    Berry quotes Lao Tzu:

    Lao Tzu saw the appearance of the virtues
    as such, in the abstract, as indicative of their loss:

    When people lost sight of the way to live
    Came codes of love and honesty. . . .
    When differences weakened family ties
    Came benevolent fathers and dutiful sons;
    And when lands were disrupted and misgoverned

  2. Lee,

    Allow me to quote T.S. Eliot again: “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”

    And Jesus: “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

    Thanks for the pointer to Wendell Berry’s essay. I’ve read nearly every essay written by Berry, several times. And yet I didn’t remember the Great Economy. Perhaps it stuck with me over the years, laying dormant until recently. Anyway, it reinforces my conviction that I’ve explored enough, and need to get on with knowing what I’ve explored–or, better, to bring what I’ve picked up in my explorations to bear on where I am. Maybe my ears are finally ready to hear.

    Twenty years ago I might have been dismayed at this: hey, I thought I’d come up with something cool, and now I find that wiser folks had long before beat me to it! But right now I’m exhilarated at the prospect of enlisting their help in deepening my understanding of the matter. And encouraged that they, too, saw important connections to make here.

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