The Tao of Politics

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The Tao of Politics, Chapter 1

This column originally appeared as part of the Tao of Politics series for the Democracy Cell Project, an IRS-approved 501(c)(3) created by former members of Kerry-Edwards 2004 blog team. The Tao of Politics attempted to explore the intersection of religion, spirituality, and politics from a contemporary Deistic or secular and spiritual perspective.

With the very first lines of his Tao Te Ching, Lao Tse sets the stage for the journey to come by reminding his readers of a profound mystery that underpins all spiritual exploration.

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

On a planet where men and women of good will evoke God by different names, and honor His existence through different customs and rituals, the “self-evident” conclusion one necessarily arrives at is that the ultimate truth of God's nature is truly beyond all human understanding. Lao Tse's observation in this regard mirrors the Apostle Paul's later reflection (in his First Letter to the Corinthians) that:

For now we see as through a glass, darkly.

This realization has profound political implications, and let me suggest that these implications did not escape the attention of the Founding Fathers.

Lao Tse continues in this first chapter with the following observations:

The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.

The problem of “naming” is acute with regard to the search for spiritual understanding. For instance, when we choose to refer to God, what should we call Her? And which set of doctrines and scriptural revelations, if any, should we consider definitive? The Founding Generation confronted this thorny issue in their own era, the period that historians describe as “the Enlightenment”. The response of quite a number of these Founders and Framers (Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, Ethan Allen, and Thomas Paine, among others) was their adoption of the religious-philosophical perspective of Deism.

Briefly described, Deism postulates that God created the world, and that He exists – but has largely withdrawn from involvement in human affairs. Hence, God is best understood through the study of the laws of nature.

This Deistic view is clearly reflected in the language that Jefferson, Franklin, and the committee that collaborated on The Declaration of Independence (which also included John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Roger Livingston) incorporated in the document – specifically their reference to “Nature's God” in the very first paragraph (and not Jesus, Almighty God, or any other Judeo-Christian variant that they might have been conversant with).

Note also the specific language that Jefferson and the committee employ in the Declaration's coda: “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world”; and “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence”. These are words that would have rolled effortlessly off the tongue of a Deist like President Washington, but only awkwardly off the tongue of a traditional Christian, like former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore (the so-called “Ten Commandments” Judge).

The Deistic perspective also challenged the ultimate authority of “revealed revelation”, as communicated through scripture – as in The Bible, or the scriptures of other religions, like the Tao Te Ching. Deists proposed that these scriptures were not dictated by God or Angels, but instead written by men who were perhaps divinely inspired, but must inevitably be seen as a product of their culture and times. Thus, these scriptures are best understood through the kind of critical analyses that would be employed in the study of any historical document.

Needless to say, the Deistic perspective generated much controversy in its heyday, with quite a number of Protestant and Catholic authorities condemning it as a heresy.

And those of us who have chosen the spiritual path in our lives might strongly disagree with Deism's contention that God had withdrawn from the world, and could be only be experienced through study of the laws of nature.

We might argue that He can be powerfully experienced, and might offer testimony from our own lives as evidence. Yet, not withstanding our subjective understanding, when confronted by the multitude of traditions that men and women of good will continue to fruitfully employ in attaining what Ralph Waldo Emerson described as mountaintop experiences, I contend that the honest seeker must inevitably embrace Lao Tse's “self-evident” observation:

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

And, having embraced that observation, they would next acknowledge the equally “self-evident” wisdom of the men who authored these words:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

This translation of the Tao Te Ching is by Stephen Mitchell, copyright 1988. It is available in paperpack editions from Harper Perennial Classics (ISBN: 0060812451) and Harper Perennial Persona (ISBN: 0060812451).
Matthew Carnicelli, © 2005. All rights reserved.
Originally published on February 6, 2005, as part of The Tao of Politics series for the Democracy Cell Project.