Reflections on The Tao Te Ching
When the early Christians had to keep their faith against the persecutions of the Roman Empire, they had -- obviously -- a visible enemy. Once their religion was legalized and established, however, they had new questions to ask concerning who they were, what could hurt their souls and their way of life. Some of them, at least, concluded that the materialism of the dominant Roman way of life was a non-agressive, but equally corrosive force that would destroy them -- not physically, but spiritually. These Fourth Century Christians, men and women, then left their societies and withdrew into the desert to be able to find true "paradise," not in a safe, secure niche in society, but in their relationship with God. That is, they had to escape the values that so comprehensively enveloped them that they could not think or feel clearly about deeper matters. Thus "freed" in the desert, they could know what a full human life was in practice. These spiritual discoveries of a "way" to live, to be, could then be used to challange the complex and tempting materialism that seemed to dominate the culture of the time.
In a much briefer, easier, and less focused way, Henry David Thoreau, someone better known to our own time, tried his "experiment" by living for two years in the woods by Waldon Pond in order "to drive life into a corner" and find out just what it really was worth and what it essentially meant. According to Thoreau, people too readily accepted one already established set of ideas or another, good or bad assessments of life, and didn't seek answers for themselves. He too in his course of events wanted to make known what he learned, wanted to "publish," as he said, the essential "goodness" or "meanness" of the human condition.
Though to do so can easily be misleading, it is useful to point out that like Thoreau and the Desert Monks, all spiritual and articulate cultures have asserted that there is a "way" or "path" that human beings are called to follow. This assertion has always involved -- universally -- several profoundly felt assumptions.
1. That humans, unlike all other creatures, are called upon to develop, to become better than they are.
2. That to be most fully "human" requires individual choice and development by cooperative action with identifiable but demanding conditions.
3. That these conditions are truly universal, applicable and available to all people -- and in that sense absolute both in practice and in idea. In The Bhagavad Gita, for example, the poet says that whenever he reads the words of Krishna to Arjuna he enters into the Gita's predicament and experiences a change of soul. Similarly the Christian Gospels invite the hearers of the Word to participate in a divine life.
4. That there is something or some others or some One who is outside and beyond us and divinely interested in us as we succeed or fail at living up to our expectations.
5. That in stories,...