Some time ago, I discovered the Tao te Ching, an ancient book of Chinese wisdom and spirituality that has dramatically influenced my spiritual formation. Rather than driving me away from a Christ-centered faith, this book has actually helped me hold onto it. If you’re feeling skeptical, feel free to check out the introduction post to the series.
Hands down, the best way to get this information is to listen to A Christian Reads the Tao te Ching podcast, which parallels these posts but goes into a lot more detail. It also includes personal stories, readings from the Tao te Ching, and some of my own poetry when it applies to the topic at hand.
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This is part one of a two-part miniseries, where I look at chapters 27, 28, 29, and 32. Because there are so many overlapping themes, I decided to weave them together, but the amount of content was too much for a single episode. In the first part, I will talk about the nature of the Tao as the “uncarved block” or primal reality, then the ways in which we lose touch with it through the phenomenon of “naming” or carving the block. In part two, we will use the yin yang as a picture of a philosophical and spiritual outlook that can lead us back to the way things were meant to be, hence the title, “Coming Full Circle”. To put it differently, this week we are journeying out, and next week we will journey back, ultimately making our way full circle back to wholeness.
The uncarved block
The starting point for our journey is the Tao as the “uncarved block.” In order to get at the practical side of what Lao Tzu is saying, we have to first start from the abstract and philosophical ideas he is working with. The uncarved, raw block of wood is a metaphor frequently used in the Tao te Ching to refer to primal reality, untouched by human intervention and manipulation - the Tao and universe in their natural state. We might think of it as the “original Eden” of the Bible.
Tao is invariably nameless.
Simple like uncut wood, it seems insignificant
Yet no one in the world can command it.
-Translator: Agnieszka Solska
To be uncarved is to be “nameless.” The act of naming and defining, categorizing and dividing things is always a step away from the Tao as primal reality, as we will look at in the next section. It is also to be simple and organic. There are no complex systems or unnatural modifications made to the fallen log of an oak tree (which is another translation of the word). It simply is what it is.
We might also consider this as a metaphor for potential and possibility. An untouched piece of wood is full of potential and can be turned into many things - but once it is carved or cut then it only has one use. By making the block into a bowl, or a spoon, or a clock, or a toy, or a staff, you give it a very specific purpose, but you are also taking away everything else that it could have been. In his translation of chapter 28, Joseph Owles writes,
An uncarved block of wood is natural.
It has infinite possibilities.
Carving it does not make it better.
It only makes it different.
Carving the block of wood limits what it is.
It can only be what it has been carved to be.
-Translator: Joseph Owles
The world and the people in it have been “carved” in so many different ways that it seems totally unattainable to reach or even comprehend this so-called nameless Tao or the “original Eden.” Even when we are required or commanded to tend, modify, name, and divide - as Adam was in Eden - there is something so fundamentally real and meaningful about the primal reality that it is essential that we retain a connection with it. Good farmers stay in touch with the natural resources and the particular combination of nutrients in their soil in order to tend the land well. Good craftsmen know to cut with the grain, not against it. Good sailors set a course with the wind and use the stars for navigation. And theoretically, good people should be in touch with their true selves as they interact with others and make life decisions.
The Tao can’t be perceived.
Smaller than an electron,
it contains uncountable galaxies.
If powerful men and women
could remain centered in the Tao,
all things would be in harmony.
The world would become a paradise.
All people would be at peace,
and the law would be written in their hearts.
When you have names and forms,
know that they are provisional.
When you have institutions,
know where their functions should end.
Knowing when to stop,
you can avoid any danger.
All things end in the Tao
as rivers flow into the sea.
-Translator: Stephen Mitchell
Naming - "carving the block"
The Tao te Ching has a lot to say about naming things. The very first two lines of the book say, “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.” Lao Tzu repeatedly warns us about the insufficiency of our own language. We cannot effectively put words to the fundamental realities of spirituality and the universe. That’s not to say language is purely for communication and information. Words can be used to craft beauty and shine a light on part of the human spirit. But if we get ahead of ourselves and think that they are enough to capture and convey the Tao - the primal reality - then we are walking down a dangerous path.
Although it seems disconnected from the rest of the chapter at first, I think that the third paragraph about naming is the central idea for chapter 32. It sets the stage by putting things in perspective. The key to the harmony and paradise described is to recognize and overcome the limitations of “naming” and differentiating between this-and-that, black-and-white, and self-versus-other. We’ll unpack this more in the next post, because I think the themes of chapter 32 all flow out from this core idea. Here it is in two different translations (although it’s worth comparing others, which you can find on my resources page).
Everything that comes from Tao
needs a name.
But once everything has its name,
you should make no other distinction between things.
This prevents you
from becoming trapped by them.
-Translator: Ron Hogan
Names are necessary for communication,
But names are not the things named.
Names appear to be real,
But they are merely human labels.
It is good to know when to stop naming.
In not naming one avoids many pitfalls.
-Translator: Marshall Davis
Naming involves differentiating between things and drawing lines and forming categories in a world where things are much more integrated and interconnected than we realize. Although this is a necessary part of life, we fool ourselves if we think we can fully define and understand the universe through it.
The Tao is undefined, naming tries to define. The Tao is imperceptible, naming tries to perceive it. The Tao is about uncarved potential, whereas naming is the act of carving it up in order to harness that potential.
This paraphrase by John Braun focuses more on the intellectual side of things. Naming is part of the advancement and progression of human learning, but it can become dangerous when left unchallenged. He writes,
To divide the whole is to differentiate, to assign names.
Naming begets naming, the evolution of knowledge.
It is wise to know when to break from naming
In order to avoid the pitfalls of myopia.
Refocus, and again look for the whole.
-Translator: John Braun
I love his use of the word myopia here. Literally, it’s the medical term for nearsightedness, and as someone who is legally blind, it resonates with me. Without my glasses, I can only see things clearly when I get really close to them, but doing so means I lose sight of the bigger picture. This is why the other definition of myopia is “lack of imagination and insight.” Braun says we need to refocus and look at the big picture, and one way to start that process is to understand the limitations of naming.
A great example of how this plays out is in specialized fields, such as academics, especially academic theology. Systematic theologians have spent centuries and filled hundreds of volumes trying to lay out the details of every single individual doctrine about God, humans, sin, the universe, and faith itself. Unfortunately, that often means losing sight of the great mystery of spirituality that speaks to our spirit and our imagination as much as to our rationality. This kind of thinking is called cataphatic theology, which means laying out what we can say definitively and positively about God and faith.
On the other hand, there is a long history of thought within the Eastern traditions and Christian mystics and monastics called apophatic theology. This is the theology of un-knowing. Rather than focusing on what we can state positively, apophatic theology starts from the premise of the great mystery, that often the only accurate thing we can say is what we don’t know. Apophatic theology is about contemplation and union with the divine, mindfulness and presence, and it represents many centuries of Christian philosophy that sometimes sounds like it could have been drawn straight from the Tao te Ching.
If Taoism and apophatic theology are all about overcoming boundaries to seek union with the divine, then “naming” does exactly the opposite. It creates boundaries, and the first boundary to be created is that of the distinct “self”. You may remember we talked a lot about the true self and the false self in episode 10, but today we’re going to look at it from a different angle.
The effects of naming
The act of naming or “carving the block” sets up categories and distinctions and thus creates the idea of a distinct self with boundary markers, which then places limitations on both people and the natural world, quantifying and objectifying others. Ultimately, if left unchecked, we end up with the illusion that we have the power to change, improve, and even control the world. Again, I want to stress that it’s not like we can stop naming and defining, only that we can become aware of it, or as I said in one of the early episodes, we need to think about the way we think.
1. Creation of the self
First, naming sets up boundaries, the first of which is the idea of the separate self. This brilliant quote from Dr. Paul Bush captures it very nicely:
The root of naming is the first (naive) error; the discrimination of self from other. Once there is identification with only a part of reality (such as a body) a perspective is created. From this perspective the formless Self, misidentified as just the bodily self, is given a location in space and time and all outside this location are perceived as not-self. (Original source)
This concept offers a profound paradigm for understanding the metaphorical subtext in the story of Adam and Eve. The initial temptation was not one of lust, selfishness, greed, or violence. It was simply for the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve are the archetypes for original, unblemished humanity - humans in touch with the Tao or primal reality. They were at one with creation, at one with each other in what Adam called “one flesh”, and united with God as the only real “other” in the situation.
The temptation for the knowledge of good and evil was to “become like God.” In my opinion, this wasn’t about brazen rebellion against God, but the temptation to gain independence and control. To set themselves up as over and above creation, to make themselves independent “others” by having the ability to name and categorize and define and control things by using systemic thinking with categories like good and evil that go above and beyond the simplicity of organic creation. They sought to “exclude” themselves, which Miroslav Volf says means “taking oneself out of the pattern of interdependence and placing oneself in a position of sovereign independence.” (Volf, Exclusion and Embrace)
This is just a theory, though, or even just a small part of a theory. We don’t need to theorize too much, though. We can just look at the results of the so-called “fall of humanity.” No longer in unity with God, Adam and Eve have seen themselves as naked “others” and hide away. No longer one flesh with his wife, Adam makes her the other by blaming her for the whole thing - and she promptly passes the blame to the serpent. No longer at one with the land, they will face the back-breaking struggle of taming and working it to produce food.
Setting up boundaries and divisions only continues. Cain kills his brother Abel, then promptly goes to found the first city, which becomes the beginning of a long history of human competition and war. At Babel, the quest to become godlike results in massive division between humankind as we are told that all languages are created and cultures are created, which we know will then fight to dominate and subjugate each other for all of history.
This is all part of the process of exclusion, and Miroslav Volf describes the effects when we create an other. He says that when we separate ourselves as independent and refuse to recognize that the other belongs to the pattern of interdependence, “The other then emerges either as an enemy that must be pushed away from the self and driven out of its space or as a nonentity - a superfluous being-that can be disregarded and abandoned. … [or] an inferior being who must either be assimilated by being made like the self or be subjugated to the self.”
This makes it so much more striking that Christians believe that somehow in Christ, the boundaries and divisions were all transcended, that somehow the possibility for real unity with each other and with God were made real once again. And beyond just that, the ability to become reunited with our original, uncarved selves - what Christians call the “image of God” in which we were made - is restored as Christ is said to be the new Adam, the full image of God… and we are invited to find our own selves “in Christ.”
2. The illusion of control
The irony is that the process of naming, defining, setting up boundaries and categories and definitions and limitations for everything and everyone actually leads us to believe that we have control over things and that we have the power to improve them. But in chapter 29, we are told that the untouched, original universe is sacred, and that it cannot be improved.
The universe is sacred.
You cannot improve it.
If you try to change it, you will ruin it.
If you try to hold it, you will lose it.
-Translator: Gia-fu Feng
Next week, in part 2, we’re going to come back full circle to the beginning and see how this passage leads us into openness and harmony - with others and with the world. In the meantime, I don’t think we should take this passage to mean we should give up all attempts at making progress and making positive changes in the world. But there is a difference between forcing change and progress and cooperating with the Tao (or God) as they unfold.
All of creation is always changing, and when we attempt to label changes as “good” or “bad” and then seize control of them, we are only repeating the pattern that both Lao Tzu and the author of Genesis identified. This is the great danger of progressive thinking. On the other hand, if we try to hold things up and prevent change, always looking back to the “good old days” when things were ideal, then we are just trying to “improve” the world in a different way - by building a dam in the river of time to keep it from flowing. And this is the great danger of conservative thinking.
But if we can remain centered in Tao, moving with the ebbs and flows of the world and demonstrating real presence and compassion for the time and place we are in and the people we are with, then ironically that is when we will find the most beautiful and lasting changes coming forth. That is certainly not to say that it will require no effort on our part; but when we find our center and remain open to any new changes that come our way rather than trying to hold onto our vision of what everything else should be, then we find ourselves becoming what we should be.