Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Response to Zhekai

My last post drew a significant response from a reader. Since it raises a lot of interesting points, I thought that I'd respond to it in some detail. His (I'm assuming the gender) statements will be in red, my responses in regular text.

I find it ironic that someone drawing on the wisdom of the Dao De Jing would criticise Christianity from such a modernist perspective.

Actually, I try not to "draw upon the wisdom of the Dao De Jing" so much as access the same source as wisdom as the people who's voices are recorded in the Dao De Jing. As I understand it, Daoism is an "inspired" religion, not a "revealed" one. The difference is that Daoists are taught how to connect with the world around them and find the truth that lies within it, not to follow a revelation that was given only once in the historical past and which can now be accessed only through an ancient and obscure book.

My specific Daoist practice consists primarily of following practices such as meditation, ritual, taijiquan, etc. Moreover, as befits someone who was initiated into a heterodox offshoot of the Quanzhen tradition, I have studied with a lot of people in other faiths---Buddhist, Catholic, Unitarian, etc. I also read a lot of books besides the Dao De Jing----the Daoist Canon is the largest of all the religions of the world. If a religion believes that someone can still gain wisdom from the wellspring of inspiration, then its scriptures will continue to grow just like any other library of literature. This is a very significant difference from the Abrihamic religions, which believe that the time of revelation has long past and no additions can be anything but heresy.

Oh, and I don't think what I wrote was a critique of Christianity per ce, just a form of very conservative Roman Catholicism.

I don't know enough about Mother Theresa to defend her, but I know enough about Catholicism to disagree with your criticisms.

For example, although it is wrong to baptise someone without their knowledge or consent, their is nothing wrong with the desire to convert people to the religion which you believe to be true.

If you say that it is wrong to baptise someone without their knowledge or consent, then you are agreeing with me that Mother Teresa was doing something very wrong. If the ex-nun is telling the truth, this is exactly what she was instructing her nuns to do.

In fact, it would be truly abominable if she believed in her religion, but *didn't* desire to share it with others.

So in fact, this motivation is higher than simply wishing to relieve poverty. You can disagree with her religious beliefs, but at least she is consistent with them.

There are a variety of issues here.

First of all, what does her religion consist of if it is possible to "share" it with another person by simply wiping someone's brow and mumbling some unintelligible words just before they die---and then telling no one else about it? This is a form of simplistic, "magical" thinking. My understanding of Christianity is that it is not about giving people a "ticket to heaven", but rather about changing the way people relate to each other in this world. This is why there is all that stuff in the Gospels about "the Kingdom of God", giving to the poor, etc.

Secondly, what does this deception say about Teresa's understanding of human dignity? It may be that a person can believe with all their heart that something is in another's best interests, but once one uses trickery or force to deny them the right to choose another option, you are denying them something exceptionally important. These dying beggars had only one thing left to them---their faith as a Muslim or Hindu---and Mother Teresa tried to steal it away from them. If she really valued them as human beings she would have to allow them the right to freely choose to die as Muslims or Hindus, no matter what she thought herself. That is what it means to respect someone else.

Yes, Teresa may have been, in some ways, consistent. But consistency is a pretty weak foundation to build respect upon. History is littered with thoroughly consistent fiends.

Moreover, I would argue that there is a basic inconsistency to the message of Teresa. She said that she loved the poor, yet she felt no responsibility to treat them as equals, nor any to defend them against the predators of the world that feed upon them, and even she admitted to her spiritual director that she felt like she was deceiving her nuns because she kept going on about the love of God in her public utterances while feeling nothing at all herself.

If you believe in the truth and value of Daoism, would you not desire others to reach an understanding or appreciation of it? If not, then how much do you really value and believe in it?

Your language undoes your argument. I am interested in helping others "understand" and "appreciate" it, but that is totally different from wiping a dying person's brow, mumbling under my breath and keeping the whole process a secret from the community. Understanding and appreciation comes from a genuine, two-way back and forth interaction---one where both sides enter in with the chance of learning. Teresa entered into her relations assuming that she was in a position of moral superiority and refused to engage the people she dealt with as equals. This is not a way to spread understanding but rather one of imposing your will on another.

Another point you criticise was her attitude to suffering. The idea of sharing in Christ's suffering is a profound element of Christian theology. It may sound strange to 'modern' people, but that isn't necessarily a problem is it? ;)

The problem isn't that it "sounds strange", but rather the reason why it sounds strange. Again, it is magical thinking. The idea is that God requires a scapegoat to deal with the consequences of a set of rules and regulations that he set up in the first place. If God is all powerful, why can't he simply forgive people's sins without the whole idea of his son being tortured on the cross? The concept of scapegoating is fairly well-understood by anthropologists and has existed in a great many societies---ranging from the Jewish ritual where the term "scape goat" comes from to the Indian and African tribes that used to torture people to death in order to ensure a good harvest. It may be that there is something in humanity that creates this sort of activity in primitive human societies, but its presence in conservative Christian theology seems to be unnecessary in this day and age. I might also add that there is a very significant school of Christian theology that rejects this form of thinking.

Beyond my questioning of the scapegoat theology, I might also point out that what I was most repelled by was the way Teresa seemed to revel in pain. I'm no psychologist, but it seemed really unhealthy and masochistic in nature. It strikes me that a spiritual director should have tried to wean her off of this simply for her own good. But the issue becomes much more problematic when we realize that she was running an order of nuns who mission included dealing with the dying. People who are dying often have very significant pain issues, and it shows profoundly bad judgement (and a real lack of compassion) to have someone in charge who thinks pain has some sort of intrinsic value. This attitude explains why---even though there seems to have been lots of money in the bank---she ran homes for the dying where there was no better pain killer than aspirin on hand. There are people who get off sexually through sado-maschocism, but in that case it is consensual. What Teresa was doing was non-consensual, and as such, was criminal.

I appreciate your understanding that life is an 'ocean of suffering', but i disagree that her views are merely a 'coping mechanism' any more than meditation and detachment are.

My apologies if I was not clear enough in my explanation. Meditation, detachment, and diverting your gaze are all coping mechanisms. My concern about her "faith" is not that it is such a thing, but rather that it is such a profoundly awful one. I was arguing that her "leap of faith" removed any opportunity for her to grow as a human being and that it was why her life was one of such profound misery and has done very little to make the world a better place.

The image of the crucifixion is one of suffering and death - which were seen as unavoidable flaws in creation - meeting with the incarnation of the Creator himself, someone who is completely free of such flaws.

The whole thing is regarded as a 'mystery', which means it is true, but hard for us to understand. It is regarded as the key to life itself. I don't think this should be too hard to appreciate at least on a symbolic level, given that you are familiar with the concept of the Dao lifting up the lowly and lowering the great.

It is not "hard to understand", it is incomprehensible because it doesn't follow the rules of logic. There is a famous anecdote in physics where a person said of another's theory that it was so bad that it wasn't even wrong. That is to say that the theory not only didn't accord with experimental facts, but it didn't even make any sense. When you say that there were "unavoidable flaws in creation", you are suggesting that God is either not omnipotent or totally good. Moreover, you suggest that suffering and death are flaws yet then go on to say that the Creator---who is free of flaws---was incarnate. So what is it? Is incarnation unavoidably flawed? If so, how could Jesus be flawless? (The Muslims get around this by having Jesus commit one sin, he stole a pin.) If Jesus was flawless, then how is creation "unavoidably flawed"? And if death and suffering are flaws, then how could a flawless God end up suffering and dying on a cross?

With all due respect, this sort of theology is not much different than the sort of meaningless "speaking of tongues" that happens at evangelical revival shows. It is the result of strong emotions that are divorced from reason. As I pointed out before, it makes more sense to see this theological position as simply a manifestation of classic scapegoating behaviour. And again, there are quite popular Christian theologies that reject this "cross-tianity" in favour of a social gospel based on transforming society according to the teachings of Christ.

With regard to the Dao "lifting up the lowly and lowering the great", I don't know the context you are referring to, but my take on Daoism is that it is a very practical religion that is talking about the way the world really works. In the case of Mother Teresa I would suggest that one particular way this rule is operating is through the idea that "the truth will out". The lowly street person who was complaining about the pain of his cancer who was quoted by Hitchens has been raised by the book (and my blog), whereas the mighty Mother Teresa has been lowered by showing her lack of compassion when she told him that the pain was the "kisses of Christ". Other than that, I can't see the reference as being much more than a non-sequitur with regard to Christ.

Mother Theresa, i cannot comment on her personal state of mind; but if you look at the writings of great Christian mystics, you will find that contemplation of this mystery brings them into a state that contains great detachment and self-lessness without erring on the side of emptiness.

Well, that's the whole point isn't it? When I read the letters she wrote to her spiritual advisor, all I saw was a person suffering in torment but who was too enmeshed in her cultural matrix and too cowardly to admit that what she was doing had granted her neither detachment nor serenity. Religion is supposed to liberate a person, not enslave them. That is the tragedy here. With regard to Christian mystics, I think that you would have to refer to specific individuals as there is a huge difference between, for example, Nicholas of Cusa and St. Ignatius.

I'm sorry, but your criticisms sound like those i have heard directed against buddhists...from christians who call them 'nihilists'. Or who in the past thought of the Daoists as guys who just ran away to forget the world.

Actually, I don't think that my criticisms are anything like the ones you mention. I was suggesting that Mother Teresa's life was a tragedy because her concept of "faith" stunted her spiritual growth. The critiques you are suggesting tend to suggest that Buddhists and Daoists are not engaged in the world.

You may be right that MT was struggling to deal with her suffering, and used her work with the poor to make sense of it. But then this - if we can risk saying so - is a problem for her, not for the religion you criticise. She may be like some peasant buddhist who recites 'omitofo' thinking it will make their life easier...but i don't think that is grounds for criticising buddhism itself.

Do you?

You forget that Mother Teresa was not a peasant. She was the head of an order of nuns, the recipient of the Nobel Peace prize, and will probably soon be declared a saint. She is being used as the pre-eminent icon for the promotion of a specific form of ultra-conservative Roman Catholicism. Moreover, my greatest criticism is not for her---she was an ignorant Albanian peasant girl---but for her spiritual advisors and the hierarchy of the church. They used her to promote the church instead of guiding her to a deeper understanding. It probably is the case that they were just as deluded as she was, which means that we need to dig deeper in order to find culpability. Ultimately, everyone who refuses to make the effort to seek the truth wherever it may lay---and that includes all the people who simply "buy into" the myth---should take some responsibility for her sad and tragic life. We are all interdependent elements of the universe.

It would be interesting to find some buddhists and daoists in similar situations and see how they express their understanding of suffering.

This isn't the place to discuss Buddhist and Daoist ideas of suffering. But it certainly is the case that many words have been written on the subject. Indeed, Buddhism is pretty much in total a meditation on the issue. And some Buddhists and Daoists have been engaged in social work that has placed them face to face with suffering. Moreover, I would suggest that those elements of Christianity that reject the scapegoat theology are the ones most committed to the alleviation of suffering. After all, if you believe that suffering has some sort of grand metaphysical value, why would you try to end it?

Finally, I think you hint at ideas about the roots of poverty, and the significance of abortion which are completely a product of the present age. I don't think it is necessarily a Daoist attitude, and it is certainly not a Christian attitude to think that we can eradicate poverty and suffering by getting to its root causes. Or rather, for christians the root cause of poverty - like all evil - is fallen human nature. I suspect for Daoists it is likewise the flaws in our originally pure nature.


Well one thing that needs to be understood is that abortion is a modern issue through and through. It wasn't all that long ago that church doctrine was that the soul of a child did not enter it until birth. (Which is a position than that even the most extreme pro-choice advocate would reject.) Abortion simply wasn't much of an issue before it became a safe, therapeutic procedure and large families became a liability instead of an asset. Infanticide was the option of choice for people who could not afford an extra mouth to feed.

Yes, poverty is a modern issue too. Up until the modern era most people did not see the world in terms of social and economic systems. Instead, there was just the "world" and people who were either "good" or "bad". Now we can see through the study of sociology that there are ways that the world operates, and very good people can end up following "the rules of the game" and thereby create a great deal of misery. Because Teresa had been so isolated from the hard-won gains of modern learning, she was oblivious to the way people like dictators and financial swindlers abuse people that they never even meet. She could meet Charles Keating Jr. and think "what a nice man" and not be aware of the people he had driven into poverty through his phoney businesses. (Teresa not only accepted money from him, but even wrote a letter to the judge who was trying him asking for forgiveness for his swindling.)

Incidentally, one of the things that I find appealing about Daoism (and some elements of Confucianism) is the way various thinkers do meditate on the roots of poverty. For example, Daoist writers do think about things like the way regulations impact on people's lives, and how the increase of desperate people who become bandits is related to the level of taxation in a society. Daoists tend to see the world in terms of impersonal processes rather than that of sinful people willfully breaking God's laws. Indeed, the Celestial Master suggests that good people should not be prideful because much of their good comes from their personal history and social context, and bad people should not be totally condemned because much of their evil comes from similar sources.

It may be that individual people have specific psychological drives that keep them from seeing the evil they do---such as psychopaths---but society as-a-whole can work to limit the damage that they do. And people who are being put forward as exemplars of spiritual attainment should have the discernment to be able to avoid being used to by these individuals. If the discernment is lacking, then what exactly is the spiritual value that people like Teresa are supposed to have?

Finally, again with all due respect, I don't think what you are saying about Daoism is comprehensible. If our original nature is pure, how can it have flaws? If it has the potential to be flawed, isn't that a flaw in itself? I can hear Zhuangzi in the background chuckling and tossing in the comment "Now, how would I know that?"


Anonymous said...

Firstly, thank you for your extensive reply. It is very interesting and has certainly challenged me.

I'm finding it difficult to reply, primarily because there are so many points now raised, and I do not wish to ramble on haphazardly for many pages.

I'll try then, to get to the heart of the issue, at least from my perspective. I apologise if I do not respond to every point equally.

I don't really care about MT. If she had faults, then she had faults. It is not my intention to defend her.

I regret that I have failed to express my intention clearly. I can see now that it sounds as though I am defending MT's actions.
I feel pretty silly re-reading it.

Covertly baptising people against their will is wrong. She should not have done it.

My real objection is to the sense you gave that Catholicism was to blame for MT. I don't mean the hierarchy, but the tradition itself. That Catholicism lacks the spiritual tools to avoid MT's (allegedly) undesirable state of mind.

Have I interpreted this correctly?


The reason I object to it, is that I see both catholicism and daoism as human attempts to understand the truth about reality.

Both have produced individuals of great wisdom and virtue; they both point to a source beyond the material world; they both try to deal with the suffering and calamities of life; and through my reading of them (not exhaustive of course) I cannot help but see the points of correspondence.

For example:

You can say that Daoism is inspired rather than revealed, and has a larger canon of scripture from which to draw upon.

But if you look at the wealth of Catholic writings that have been acknowledged as doctrinally consistent, including those which are 'inspired' and 'revealed', isn't this comparable? (the writings of the saints are a good example of this).

There are protestant groups that only rely on the bible, but my understanding is that the Catholics are quite the opposite. Believing that there is only one truth, they hold that revealed truth, inspired truth, and scientific truth must all be compatible. That is why the pope rejects 'creationism' in favor of evolution, for example. The bible is understood to be revelation filtered through the particular time and culture of its authors.


My brief presentation of it was admittedly poor - using ambiguous terms for example. But my mention of the significance of suffering was not to prove it to you, but to point out that it is the very core of Catholic theology; that there is far more to it than the mistaken conclusion that 'suffering is good', or any such thing.

I'm sorry if I have you wrong, but your initial post read as though you subscribe to a very modern and superficial understanding of Catholicism. But perhaps you were saying that Mother Theresa's Catholicism was superficial and unhelpful? If that's the case then we have no real disagreement.

....except for all the other points we disagree on, of course. :)

Briefly, my understanding is that the daoists see original nature as good, but warped and corrupted by our desires and contrived actions.

It is my fault for writing ambiguously about these issues. I was only getting to the 'gist' of it, which evidently was insufficient.

Thank you again for your reply. I'm certainly not pleased with my previous effort. I hope this comment at least clarifies my intention.

If you feel I have not responded sufficiently to any point, I will try to elaborate.


The Cloudwalking Owl said...


Good to hear from you again.

My understanding is that Roman Catholicism is a very "big tent" that includes a great many, very different points of view. I hope that I have always been very clear that what bothers me is a very extreme, conservative form of it.

In the same way, Daoism is also a very big tent that hold many different points of view. It is true that some Daoists "point to a source beyond the material world", as you say. But other Daoists root themselves completely in the world of "here and now". I tend to find myself in that faction.

Your point about the distinction between Catholicism and Protestantism is well made and, I believe, quite true. But having said that, there has always been a very strong tendency for the hierarchy to punish people who are inspired. One of the Catholic mystics who is most quoted, for example, is Meister Echardt. Most of the church people who quote him, however, don't mention that he died while waiting for a trial by the Inquisition on heresy. If he had lived a little longer, he might well have been burnt on the stake by the same church that not likes to quote him.

As to the issue of suffering, I'll have to leave it to you to describe what the Catholic teaching is on the subject, as I don't know myself and there wasn't enough to piece together what Teresa was getting on about. It did seem clear to me that however she understood it, it wasn't helping her or the people she was supposed to helping all that much.

Finally, as to the Daoist idea of "original nature", I can see why people would talk like that. It is a debate that has ranged inside the Daoist community. But there is a famous story about two claimants to the leadership of a community of monks. It was settled by poems that discussed what it was that they were doing in the temple. One poem talked about cleaning the dust off the mirror (ie: getting rid of the imperfections on our original nature), but the poem from the person who gained the lineage holders post said what dust? what mirror? everything is just as it is (ie: that our "imperfections" are as much a part of our original nature as anything else.)


My the post and the subsequent comments have been a joyful reading experience!

Two very aware and intelligent as well as understanding and forthright minds have met, and spoken!!!