The Tao Of “Whatever” And The Abolition Of Man
Living in a multi-cultural, post-modern world brought to us by the new era of rapid communication, we are more and more exposed to cultures that are, or at least seem to be, very remote from our own. Although many of them are in fact foreign, there are times when we find in them something that strikes a sensitive chord with us. Take for instance the concept of “Tao,” found in the homonym religious movement, Taoism, but also in Buddhism, Confucianism, and even in Eastern Martial Arts.
An easy explanation of Tao would be a path or way of life. James Legge, a famous researcher of Chinese culture, described Taoism as “the exhibition of a way or method of living, which men should cultivate as the highest and purest development of their nature.” Tao is a way in which one should conduct oneself in order to fulfill their highest potential, make the best out of their existence.
I am not going to examine what this path really is in the context of far eastern thinking, but would like to stop and reflect on the very proposal of following a path in life in our contemporary social context.
Nowadays we live in a postmodern world, a movement that was very simply and accurately defined by Jean Francois Lyotard as “incredulity towards metanarratives.” I know these are some big words, so let me put it into simpler terms: it is a general mistrust of all the big stories of religions, all the empty promises of a better world through science that modernity has yet to deliver, all the hollow assurances of utopic societies like communism, socialism, capitalism, and all the other “isms” out there. The postmodern man does not believe in the existence of a well-defined path in life anymore. The disheartened postmodern man lives an existence that is pathless; he seizes the moment based on ephemeral feelings without thinking so much about the connections between yesterday and tomorrow.
Ask a teenager to conform to your moral principles, religious or any other kind, and you will get back a single-word answer: “Whatever!” This simple world expresses his attitude of life; he does not care if your principles are good, or based on science, or faith or anything else. All he cares about is what he feels about that particular thing in that very moment. No structure, no eternal moral values, no universal truth, just the whiff of the moment guides him. A recent study looking at how young college students make moral choices revealed the following quintessential commentary: “I mean, I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it. But different people feel different ways, so I couldn’t speak on behalf of anyone else as to what’s right and wrong.” Basically, as the study concludes, moral choices nowadays are just a matter of individual taste.
C.S. Lewis foresaw this trend a long time ago in a little-known study called “The Abolition of Man.” Talking about the modern education of his times, he reflects with sadness: “We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” He goes on to say that there are certain core values that are shared, with minor variations, by all the major religions of the world; he calls this common trunk the “Tao.” Without this common Tao, he resolves that man cannot make any solid moral judgments but is condemned to reach the wrong conclusions because his rationality is not based on anything stable. “The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed, they would find that they had destroyed themselves.”
Now, I don’t want to sound like I agree that all religions are the same. I know it is not true. I agree, however, that one should have a path in life that is based on core, unyielding values. A pathless life does not lead anywhere; it only moves you round in circles, an existence without a goal, empty of meaning, consumed in the satisfactions of the moment. This is the “Tao of whatever,” a world of men without chests, who live only for themselves and could care less if their full potential as human beings has been fulfilled or not as long as they are gratified.
As Christians, we are not to follow this path, but we are to base our life’s journey on the unmovable Truth that is the incarnate Logos, Jesus Christ. He is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” He is the One who by His Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection exemplified for us humility, bravery, and sacrifice and affirmed the beauty of a life dedicated to serving others. He opened our eyes to see that we should embrace our enemies as brothers and turn the other cheek to fulfill the commandment of love. He is the only One who can give meaning and true value to our existence.
A life spent in imitating Christ is the only Tao leading to eternal life. He is the only assurance that man’s highest potential can be achieved. He is the new Adam who shows us what we can be if we choose to follow in His footsteps. Choosing any other path, or choosing no path, is a waste of one’s existence. We should live not randomly but wisely, trying to stay on the path that leads, through Christ, to our fulfillment as human beings. Otherwise, I am afraid that C.S. Lewis is right, and we are heading towards the abolition of man.