Chaff

A reader writes:

I wonder if you realize what you may have have unintentionally affirmed. Chuang Tzu did not believe that even someone as close to him as his own son could grasp the essence of his craft through words. But one could imagine that his boy, watching and imitating for years in kata-like fashion would also have experimented and honed his own senses enough to become a creditable wheelright. Similarly, Chuang Tzu wrote beautiful metaphoric hints, not a definitive manual on wheel-craft for future aspirants to live by.

If Chuang Junior wrote such a manual, it would not have his father's approval. And the further from the source such manuals appeared, the dodgier they would become. In fact he knew that his own writings on Taoism became truth-less the moment they hit the page. So how does this sit with Christianity?

A few hundred years after Chang Tzu, Jesus also attracted a flock of seekers. In whatever time they had with him, they witnessed and absorbed some of the seriousness of his commitment to the Lord. The most blessed of these apprentices eventually became journeyman or master sages in their own right. But to spread this gospel to larger populations, they had to resort to the written word. Let's even ignore the misinterpretations, additions, subtractions and purposeful distortions that dogged this written account through the past 2000 years.

According to Chuang Tzu's logic, once Jesus died, anything written by or about him became chaff and dregs. Shouldn't the Taoist, or Oakshottian/Conservative opinion be that the Christian Bible qualifies only as a an intriguing collection of allegories/koans (with some additional factors of of historical or aesthetic interest)? It might serve as a guide to social morality (more Confucian than Taoist).

But as a substitute for having a real-time mentor in the flesh to submit to and model oneself after zippo. And as a manual for developing one's own actual craft of spirituality, or preaching to others hardly worth thinking about. Why listen at all to ministers purveying the "popular, degenerate amalgam" of politics, prosperity magic, xenophobia, and bland pop-psychology that Christianity has become? Or priests who insist on the traditional, "original" approach? Or anyone who claims authority by linking to Jesus?

Why not emulate Jesus or Chuang-Tzu the best we can instead of worshiping them, or their written chaff? Or if we want mentoring, why not befriend a living sage (they are out there), someone who is steeped in the riches of silent contemplation rather than silk vestments, flashy cars, social taboos or political crusades?

Andrew, I know so many people want to bust your chops for not leaving the Catholic church. I think that's begging the question. Why assume that an edifice with another style of architecture will make the critical difference? Every extant religion has a mystical core, and at the deepest level, those cores all point in the same direction. That's not the problem. It's all the other layers of mindless extrapolation that have gummed up the works in the days since the Original ascetic/mystic left this world.

This is surely where Merton was heading when he died. Oakeshott, for his part, was a Christian modernist, a believer that any religion that clung to ancient doctrines rather than present practice was in effect dead. His life and writing began and ended with this question (and, if you want to read my first take on this, see Chapter 5 in Intimations Pursued, "The Claims Of Religion). I fear that much of what Jesus would have understood as being-with-God is in crisis within the current church, in all its forms. And the challenge for Christians today is to recover being-with-God in ways liberated in part from the chaffs and dregs of ecclesiastical corruption and evil.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.