The Counsel of Trent

writing is thinking

Friday, March 28, 2008

Mailbag: Taoism

From a letter I just wrote to a student who was "raised Catholic" but now is more interested in Eastern Religions, espeically Taoism.


Our society doesn't really encourage people to think much about their religion, unfortunately not even in the Church. That's a real passion of mine, to try to change the culture at large and especially the culture in the Church to appreciate the riches of the Catholic heritage of thought in philosophers and theologians like Ambrose, Augustine, Anselm, and Aqinas (what I call the A-list). I mean these guys say amazing things. One of Saint Augustine's famous quotes is "O Lord our hearts are restless until they rest in thee." Why isn't our society, in and out of the Church, addressing the sense of restlessness of youth. What's more, this sense of restlessness is limitless, there's nothing on earth that can always satisfy, nothing that offers infinite bliss. So are we doomed either to finite existence/enjoyment or infinite restlessness? Augustine thinks not since exploring the infinite Mind of God offers infinitely many new facets every moment. God's mind has infinitely many limbs with infinitely many branches with infinitely many leaves... In the words of Saint Anselm, who as influenced by Augustine, God is "That than which no greater can be conceived." In one of his prayers he realizes that this being must exist because perfection includes existence. So if that than which no greater can be conceived failed to exist then it wouldn't *be* the greatest conceivable, but that's a contradiction so there must be such a being. Saint Thomas Aquinas then provides the resources for seeing why this must be true because, as he puts it, God's essence includes his existence. For all finite, contingent creatures our essence includes some properties, but not existence: we could be or not be, the would could have gone on even we hadn't existed. But God's essence and existence are one: God cannot not exist. In my survey of Eastern religions I suppose I found certain kinds of Hinduism most plausible from a metaphysical point of view but abhorred its stratified ethics. I found Buddhism most plausible from an ethical standpoint (except inaction), but find its metaphysics implausible (guess what, I *do* exist, there's no denying that as Descartes taught us "Cogito ergo sum"). I do believe in a Tao, but I hold a view called Personalism which puts persons and personhood at the top of the metaphysical ladder (human persons are just one kind of person, I'm talking about any being with will, intellect, choice, rationality, creativity) and so I think the Tao is not an impersonal force but rather an abstraction of the mind of God. God thinks only perfectly harmonious thoughts containing the perfection of all things. When we think in harmony with God we grasp God's thoughts, the Tao. I think a Tao divorced from personhood is unintelligible. On the moral side I find the same flaws in Taoism as in Buddhism: the principle of inaction. Both are essentially Stoic, telling us we should accept things as they are rather than fight to bring the world into conformity with our ideals. I think that's the wrong way to think about the Tao. I think the Tao impels us to action to bring about that ideal to which the Tao stretches. Some Taoist's versions of active inaction come close to this, though I still find it unintelligible as an impersonal force and think it must be grounded in the Mind of a Person. I suppose I'm a Catholic Taoist although it's basic teachings were found in Judaism long before the writing of the Tao Te Ching. The Hebrew Scriptures taught that all humanity should be humble since we are somewhere in the middle of the Great Chain of Being, far from the most advanced creatures in existence. The Hebrew Scriptures taught compassion through all kinds of rules about gleaning and usury and hospitality. The Hebrew Scriptures taught moderation through its dietary constraints. So the "Three Jewels" of Taoist ethics and the Tao itself, the metaphysical centerpiece are already included in an informed understanding of the Judeo-Christian worldview.


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