Friday, March 12, 2010

Taoism and The Cure for Halitosis

The ancient Chinese believed that a wise person should move quietly through the personal storms that rule most people’s lives. They thought of such storms as ego eruptions, internal explosions created by a preoccupation with things like fame and fortune. Personal storms could also arise from one’s attempts to avoid suffering, which is, at any rate, an inevitable part of human life.

A wise person would develop his or her intuition, learning to discern the deep structure of reality that under girds life and nature. Then, the wise person would organize life, thought and emotion accordingly.

Honoring the structures of reality involved distinguishing between right and wrong. One could develop a deep intuition about the way things are supposed to work in the universe if only he could sense the rightness or wrongness of a particular thing. The rightness or wrongness of a thing was not constant; it involved its placement, timing, or how it balanced with other objects or events in its environment. Fung Shui is an example of this system of thought.

Ancient Chinese called the structure of reality, “the way,” or “Tao,” in Chinese.

(The word is pronounced dahwl, which may make Chinese laugh but gets close enough for people like me!)

Though the Chinese probably developed this idea to a more sophisticated degree than most other ancient peoples, it was nearly universally believed.

In his letter to the Romans, for example, St. Paul alludes to this sense of an underlying “rightness or wrongness” of things. His first chapter insists that God has imbedded a sense of right and wrong within the very structures of the universe. People of all cultures in all times and places thus have access to an unwritten text that teaches us justice and righteousness.

Earlier generations of Western thinkers, going back to the ancient Romans and Greeks, called this concept 'natural law'. For them, jurisprudence was the art of creating and interpreting the laws of a land in such a way that those laws would reflect that deep natural law that they believed was meant to govern all people everywhere.

As late as the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, the concept of “natural law” allowed the Western nations to judge the disposed rulers of Nazi Germany for having committed “crimes against humanity.”

Christians believe that not only the Nazis, but that all human beings live in rebellion against the “Tao,” or “the way.”

In his writings, C. S. Lewis points out repeatedly that human beings experience this rebellion as a deep and irresolvable conflict. He charges that all human beings in every society believe some things to be right and other things to be wrong. He says that human beings are frustrated because even though they posses this knowledge of good and evil, they often choose evil. Lewis tells us, as all good teachers throughout Christian history have told us, that this frustration reveals a fundamental flaw at the core of human nature: that our sincere intention to do what is right is coupled with our inability to actually do what is right.

Christians explain this basic flaw of human nature in different ways, an by using different metaphors. The Biblical word for it is sin, a word that means, “missing the mark”.

C.S. Lewis again, in his science fiction book, Out of The Silent Planet, writes about the guardian angel of an “unfallen” planet, (one in which the inhabitants have never sinned,) trying to describe the concept of sin to those under his charge. He describes the spiritual inhabitants of the earth (demons) as “the bent ones.” The illness of soul that causes angels to be bent is called “evil.” When human beings are bent, we call their illness, “sin.” And that is as good a description of sin as we will find. Saying that a person is a “sinner” is to say that his soul, the core of his being, is “bent.”

In today’s One Year Bible reading (Numbers 16), the lessons continue about making a difference between sacred and profane things. One can profane a sacred thing by using it outside its appointed boundaries or treating it as though it were like everything else. In the Psalm (55), the writer bewails the loss of a friend who has betrayed him. “We took sweet counsel together and walked in the house of God in company.” What the Psalmist would have expected of an enemy has been done by a friend. Things are out of joint, twisted, not right.

Christians call this “not rightness,” “sin.”

We first learn to recognize sin in others. Early in life we realize that people do unjust things to us. “It’s not fair,” the child cries when other children do not share, or they do not receive something that was promised.

It takes a long time for us to realize that the terrible, twisted, bentness we observe in others is in us too. There is a mechanism in each human being that continually creates and dramatizes his or her own life story. In this autobiography, the one who creates the story is the same one who hears it and therefore, the person for whom the story is told is always the hero, always in the right, and always has a good explanation for why things go wrong in the world. Usually, a relationship crisis becomes the first breakthrough – often devastating – when the “hero” realizes that he too is bent. All that he has observed in others that is unrighteous and unholy, is his very same condition.

An old African proverb claims “no one knows when his own breath stinks.”

Christianity says that every human being has halitosis and that we work day and night to hide it from ourselves.

The first step to finding the Way, the Tao, is the realization that our finder is broken. We cannot FIND our Way, we must be FOUND BY the Way.

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tse writes, “those who name the Tao do not know it; those who know it, do not name it.”

With all great respect to the great sage, I must say that Lao Tse was mistaken. The Tao has a name. The Tao is the One who once said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”

The Old Testament book called The Proverbs asks the question: “can that which is crooked be made straight?”

Yes! It can. We can cry out to the eternal Tao, as one poor man once did, “Jesus, Thou Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

It’s a free alignment and its always just one confession away.

1 comment:

MLH said...

In my readings this morning was an interesting line that seems appropriate to share here: "Ethics is a radical sense of community."