Rod Dreher

Last night I was reading a chapter of a book on mysticism and physics, and in this chapter the author described Chinese religious and philosophical thought as taking place between the poles of Taoism and Confucianism. This point was actually summed up ably by Stephen Prothero in that column of his I linked to yesterday. Excerpt:

The great religions also differ fundamentally when it comes to the techniques they employ to take you from problem to goal. In Confucianism, the rules and rituals of ancient Chinese civilization foster the religious goal of social harmony. But according to Daoists, these very rules and rituals cause the human problem of lifelessness. Civilization is a vampire, Daoists claim, sucking the life out of us, depleting our qi (vital energy), and taking us to an early grave. The only way to pursue the Daoist goal of fostering life is to live in harmony with the naturalness, simplicity, and spontaneity of what Daoists call the Way.

In the Taoist way of thinking, life is about flow — flow back and forth between dualities, between polarized points. Something that is too rigid will have to collapse eventually, because conditions will change such that it’s rigidity becomes not strength but weakness. Something that is too soft will have to harden eventually if it is to survive, and because that is the way — or the Way — of the world. In this way of thinking, one can see why a healthy religious culture needs to have both conservative-minded people and liberal-minded people (both within certain limits, of course), because the truths that bring life to people could be lost within an ossified religious structure, or be lost in a loosey-goosey one. Similarly, on this view, a healthy polity needs both a Daddy Party to lay down strict rules, and a Mommy Party to be more compassionate and merciful.
Further, on this view, there can be no Golden Age, religiously or politically, but only moments in time that are more healthily balanced — harmonious, and possessing equilibrium — than others.
This is an easier concept to grasp from a political point of view. The liberals and conservatives of the U.S. in 2010 would be hard for the liberals and conservatives of the U.S. in 1910 to recognize. Insofar as any political person misconceives of politics as operating like religion, he’s really headed down the wrong path. Politics are always relative to their time and place, and have to be.
From a religious angle, the objection might well be that we’re talking about big-T Truth, and this Taoist view is essentially relativistic. If something is True, then that is the pole around which we should orient ourselves, not polar opposites. A reply to that might be that yes, no dogmatic religion (e.g., Christianity) can afford to treat its truths as relative, but the Taoist insight describes how we relate to dogmatic truths. If a truth is bound up in a highly ritualized and legalistic religious structure, it may be difficult for ordinary people to relate to that truth, except cerebrally — and when a religion loses its vitality via overintellectualizing, it will wither. On the other hand, if a religion is too unstructured, and go-with-the-flow, those truths can be hard for people to grasp as important. (I’m thinking about a Catholic college professor I know who told me his smartest undergrads complain that in Catholic high school, they learned almost nothing theological, except, “God loves you.”)

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