Sunday, 27 May 2012

Sunday Sermon: Lao Tsu and Moses

Every, good morning! Thank you for all things. Thank you for your endless ocean of logos. I can not do it any justice, but I make my humble contribution sincerely, with as pure a heart as I can manage, and I hope that it is helpful or useful to people who read it. Amen.


I'm going to tell the story of Lao Tsu's writing the Tao Te Ching. The story probably isn't true, and I won't get all the details right anyway, but it's a traditional story and it is sort of within its own tradition to retell the story freshly.

For those not familiar with the Tao Te Ching, it is the most important text of the Taoists. It is very short and is made up of beautiful, meditative, always paradoxical poems. It is one of my most dearly favoured ancient texts and I heartily commend it.

But Lao Tsu, already a noted philosopher in his lifetime, had not written anything down. In this he was like his near-contemporary Socrates, and like Jesus. As far as Lao Tsu was concerned, when he came to the conclusion that he was dying, that was the way it was going to be. Apparently he could write, so he didn't have the excuse Jesus has of probable illiteracy. He was either too lazy to write - unlikely, since he held down a job as Keeper of the Archives, read a lot of classical texts and maintained a school of philosophy - or he had his reasons.

When he discovered he was dying Lao Tsu travelled toward the western borders of China in order to go into the Himalayas to die in his own chosen, peaceful way, in nature. The Emperor found out about this plan and sent to the borders to stop Lao Tsu. He was taken hostage in a sense, a hostage from his own peaceful end, until he wrote down his teaching. According to this story we would not have the Tao Te Ching if this political intervention and unjust internment had not occurred, which leaves us wondering whether we should thank the fates or hold the Tao Te Ching itself somewhat skeptically, or both.

Anyway this is how it came to be that Lao Tsu wrote. By far the most important and most remembered lines are the first two, which appear to tell us why he didn't wish to write, and why we should treat all religious writings as implicitly suspect or, at least, non-canonical.

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name

What he then went on to write is a pantheistic collection of paeans to paradox, which frankly is hard to make any clear sense out of (I may be stupid but I have read it many times, and made a sincere attempt to learn the language in order to understand it and other literature from the Chinese Spring-Autumn period, but that was 25 or so years ago). Also it is beautiful, evocative, challenging and has been the basis of the meditations of millions for two and a half thousand years. But in my mind, it is these two first lines that are the most important ones, Lao Tsu's own 'first layer' of teaching, of which all the rest, and indeed almost all religion and literature if it's right, is subordinate.

Because if you paint a picture of a parrot, regardless of how detailed; indeed even if you took high resolution video of a parrot, it is not the eternal parrot. It is not a parrot at all.

The repetition of the pattern (the first line actually kind-of says, "The Tao that can be tao-ed is not the eternal Tao"; dào ke dào fei cháng dào) invites us to repeat the pattern, so let's play:

The religion that can be lived is not the eternal religion.
The life that can be lived is not eternal life.
The god that can be represented is not God.
A name of God is not the name of God.
A future that can be predicted is not the future.
A past that can be storied is not the past.
The present that can be comprehended is not the present.
The chord that can be played is not the perfect chord.
The strategy that can be conducted is not the ideal strategy.
The map is not the territory.
The you now is not you.

My apologies for getting carried away there but I really like the formulation.

It might seem a strange place for me to find illumination on the second and third of the Ten Commandments, penned some centuries earlier very far to the West. So far to the West was it penned in fact, and so relatively recently (along with secular scholarship, I place the Mosaic writings much later than does tradition) that it is virtually impossible that the respective traditions had any contact on the matter. And they do have a very different... um, voice. In short (Exodus 20):

2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of any thing. (verse 4)
3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. (verse 7)

These are shortened versions of the King James Version. I render them quite differently in Ten Responsibilities in order to make my own meaning as clear as possible to begin with. But in a way they are saying the same thing as the first verses of the Taoist text, and personally I really like what the Taoist version does to the Mosaic version's meaning.

I am yet to really rationalise my inclusion of a version of the Ten Commandments at all into the House of Every's initial presentation. I am aware I need to, but this isn't it. Here I am talking about the standard version of the Mosaic edicts to make no images and speak no names (or not 'vainly' anyway, whatever that means). The Taoist version seems to provide the Mosaic version with a 'why'.

Why shouldn't we make images of God, of being? Because we can't. It's not possible, for any image or articulation we make will be infinitely finite compared to the real thing, and hence would be an insult and a mockery. Regardless of how careful we are our attempts to depict God will have our snotty cultural residue all over it. That's the pious reason anyway.

More pragmatically, imaging The God is divisive. So long as you believe in bunches of gods and maybe your main sacerdotal squeeze is, say, Athena, there really isn't a problem. But when you start talking about a transcendent-over-all 'God', a "God of gods," no less, your image of God is dangerous. That name you use is just a word in your language, that story you have is just the story of one people, that book you read is just one of thousands of books. Idolatry of a transcendent God will kill people, for four generations according to the curse appended to the second commandment (v.5). I don't believe in curses, but presumably the writer believed in this one, and it is the only curse in the Ten Commandments.

And looking back across the thousands of miles and the couple of centuries, we get a hint that early Taoism had a version of the edict against idolatry, though never named as such. It was, expressed much more passively, a, "Not." It is much more polite though. Rather than "Thou shalt not engrave an image" it says, "That image you engraved; it's not really God and doesn't look like God; just saying." Rather than saying, "Do not name God" it says, "That name of God that you use; it ain't really the name of God." It's the same principle, with a far different degree of tolerance. The Taoist Tao is not "a jealous God" (v.5), apparently, but more of a realist.

The book that can be written is not the eternal book.
The logos that can be incarnated is not the eternal logos.

Tao (more or less 'way', 'path' or at a stretch, 'being-in-change') is not a synonym of Yaweh ('being'), and it seems to be referring to a different idea than 'God'. The Tao Te Ching is pantheist throughout however, and Taoism is often considered, at these philosophical roots, to be pantheist. In a sense Tao is Yaweh, though with more of a process-edge to the meaning, 'Way of God' perhaps, or 'Way of Being'. They are both profound, universalist and transcendental terms, in any case.

Meanwhile, as is our existential lot, we will have a way, and a word, a song and a story, we will have a life, and we will have ten thousand images, just as Lao Tsu refers to the "ten thousand things." Even 'Everything' is a name, in a particular language with a particular story, however much it tries not to be, and even 'all world literature' is a finite text, and is incomplete, imperfect and, well... frankly not entirely clear on a few points. Meanwhile we will live our lives, as differently as any other lives that have been lived before and different to any lives which will ever again be lived.

Speaking of the ten thousand things, I would be amiss if I didn't provide the rest of the first Chapter of the Tao Te Ching. Here is all of it, for you to scratch your head over for as long as you like:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
 this appears as darkness.
The gate to all mystery.

Every, thank you for this strange but compelling calling as a modern preacher. Thank you for this very modern opportunity to blog. I pray that my preachings will be taken in, at the very worst, good humour and, at best, that they will bear good fruit. Bless my readers, and bless life on earth. Help us to do thy will. So be it.

No comments:

Post a Comment