The Tao tells us how we ought to live; we then discover that we don’t live up to it. We fail, and fail miserably. It tells us that we ought to value things according to their value, and then we discover that we have not done so. We have not valued what is supremely valuable. That is, we have not valued God, treasured God, loved God with all that we are. What are we to do?
Culture War and The Abolition of Man
I’d like to begin by apologizing to those who saw the title of this talk and came hoping to hear reflections on China’s influence on American real estate. The confusion is understandable, but as the fellow said, “That topic is above my paygrade.” Instead, I hope to shed some light on what we often call “the culture war.”
So let me simply get right to my major claim: The culture war in the present generation is fundamentally about what C. S. Lewis called the Tao.
Lewis introduced the term in his little book on education called The Abolition of Man. In that book, Lewis sets forth two fundamentally different visions of reality, and the two approaches to education that flow from them.
Defining the Tao
The Tao is C. S. Lewis’s term for the objective rational and moral order embedded in the cosmos and in human nature. Other names for it include Natural Law or Traditional Morality. Lewis borrows the term from Eastern religions for the sake of brevity and in order to stress its universality. Lewis claims that a belief in the objective rational and moral order of the universe is present not only in Christianity, but in Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, the Greek and Roman philosophical tradition, even ancient paganism. Whatever differences exist among them (and there are substantial and important differences), the common thread is the belief in the doctrine of objective value.
Lewis claimed that until modern times, almost everyone believed that our thoughts and our emotions should be conformed to objective reality. Objects in the world could merit our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt. Certain attitudes and emotions are really true to reality. Others are really false to reality.
When we call children “delightful,” we’re not simply recording a psychological fact about ourselves. We’re recognizing a quality in them that demands a certain response from us, whether we give it or not. And to fail to give it, to feel it is to be wrong. Lewis himself did not enjoy the company of small children, and he regarded that as a defect in himself, like being tone deaf or color blind.
For those within the Tao, when our thoughts correspond to reality, we speak of truth. When our emotions and wills correspond to reality, we speak of goodness. These are objective categories, the source of all value judgments, and universally binding; “Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike.” The Tao binds and restrains all men, from commoners to kings, from citizens to rulers.
The Poison of Subjectivism
In opposition to the Tao stands the modern ideology which Lewis calls the poison of Subjectivism, an existential threat to Western Civilization and humanity that enables tyranny and totalitarianism.
The poison of subjectivism upends the ancient and humane way of viewing the world. Reason itself is debunked (today, we would say deconstructed). Instead of thoughts corresponding to objective reality, human reason is simply a brain secretion, an epiphenomenon that accompanies certain chemical and electrical events in the cortex, which is itself the product of blind evolutionary processes. It has no more significance than a burp. Which makes Logic subjective, and we thus have no reason to believe that it yields truth.
Likewise, moral value judgments are simply projections of irrational emotions onto an indifferent cosmos. Truth and goodness are merely words we apply to our own subjective psychological states, states that we have been socially conditioned to have. Because rational thought is merely a brain secretion, and value judgments are merely irrational projections, the imposition of reason and morality in society is always a dressed-up power play. And the subjectivists want the power.
Thus, for subjectivists, “Traditional values are to be ‘debunked’ and mankind to be cut out into some fresh shape” at the arbitrary will of Conditioners who view people as raw material for experimentation. In other words, nature, including human nature, is just play-dough to be kneaded and reshaped according to the wishes of the Conditioners. Because Lewis knew that “Man’s power over nature” is really the power of some men over other men with nature as the instrument.
The Tao in America
What does all of this have to do with the culture war in America? Put simply, American culture is an expression of the Tao. From our founding documents to our customs and practices, and from sea to shining sea, American culture, for most of our history, has been firmly grounded in an express belief in the objective moral and rational order of the universe.
This doesn’t mean that we’ve lived up to the Tao. At various times in our history, America has grossly failed to abide by basic principles of the Tao (such as the Golden Rule). Think of Jim Crow. But the Civil Rights Movement was built as an appeal to the Tao. MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” appeals to the Scriptures, to the Western theological and philosophical tradition, and America’s own heritage, because he knows that America professes to live within the Tao. So living within the Tao is not the same as living up to the Tao. But both King and Lewis knew that the very possibility of moral progress hinges on a permanent objective standard by which we measure such progress. Imperfect and flawed as it has been, the civilizational embrace of the Tao has historically been a crucial feature of American society.
And, as The National Conservatism Statement of Principles notes, America’s embrace of the Tao has come through the Bible:
For millennia, the Bible has been our surest guide, nourishing a fitting orientation toward God, to the political traditions of the nation, to public morals, to the defense of the weak, and to the recognition of things rightly regarded as sacred.
The Scriptures bear witness to the objective moral order, and thus the Tao, through the Bible, is part of our patrimony, our inheritance. In terms of rational and moral order, the Scriptures and the Tao speak with one voice.
From “It Is Good” to “I Want”
Nevertheless, rebellion against this order is possible, and can be temporarily effective. (But only temporarily: falling feels like flying until you hit the ground). Richard Hooker, the English theologian, wrote that “Perverted and wicked customs—perhaps beginning with a few and spreading to the multitude, and then continuing for a long time—may be so strong that they smother the light of our natural understanding.” (Divine Law and Human Nature, 43).
Lewis notes that “When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains” (Abolition, 65). And our society is debunking “it is good” and reordering itself around “I want.” Science and technology are now employed in service of “I want.” Indeed, the major institutions of society—Big Business, Big Education, Big Tech, Big Media, Big Entertainment, Big Pharma and Big Government—are all in service of subjectivism, in service of the Almighty “I want.” Not only that, they are in the business of shaping and conditioning “I want” and then enforcing “I want” on those still clinging to “it is good.”
Thus, we feel the cultural, social, and legal pressure to speak nonsense, to participate in the lie, to conform to the wicked custom. We must affirm that Rachel Levine is a woman, that pronouns are private property, that the mutilation of healthy organs is “gender-affirming care,” and that dismembering a child in utero is about a woman’s reproductive health.
This is the fundamental cultural conflict in our times. The Tao or Chaos. The Tao or Absurdity. “It is good” vs. “I want.”