The Tao in America

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.”

Recover the Tao

What does this framing of the culture war mean for National Conservatism? Fundamentally, we must seek to recover the Tao in our nation’s life. This includes both securing the vestiges of the Tao that persist in our culture, as well as restoring those that have been temporarily lost or smothered. Among other things, this means that our laws ought to be grounded in the fundamental moral order of the cosmos. It is good when human laws reflect and apply the Tao in concrete circumstances. Such laws restrain evil. 

As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law can’t make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also.” 

Today we might say, “It would be good if doctors did not castrate boys and mutilate girls because they themselves want to live within the Tao. But short of that, it is still good if doctors refuse to do so because, if they do, they’ll go to jail, they’ll bring down upon their heads both civil and criminal penalties.” Recovering the Tao means confidently resisting the imposition and spread of wicked custom.

And we should do so with some confidence. Though reality can be shaped within limits, there are boundaries. The world, including human nature, is not infinitely malleable. We are not in a fight with the Left over control of the play-dough, because reality is not play-dough. It has real integrity, unity, design and purpose. And so in seeking to resist wicked custom and recover the Tao, we should do so in the confidence that we are cutting with the grain of reality. 

Defending Marriage

And let me underscore that we must do this wholesale, not piecemeal. This means, among other things, that we cannot abandon marriage. We must not succumb to Chesterton’s indictment when he said, “It’s the job of progressives to break things, and the job of conservatives to make sure they don’t get fixed.” Despite the legal and cultural situation, we must continue to insist that marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman, for the purpose of companionship, mutual help, and procreation. It was established by God and is bound up with our obligations to our ancestors and to our posterity. And the temptation to abandon the definition of marriage in the present moment is very great. 

But let’s be clear. Living within the Tao means faithfully naming the world. It means that human language and human law ought to reflect the objective moral and rational order. So if we want to resist the fantasy and folly that Rachel Levine is a woman, we must also resist the fantasy and folly that two men can be “married” to each other. We can’t mock Justice Jackson for being unable to answer “what is a woman?” if we mumble into the microphone when asked “what is marriage?” Obergefell, like Roe before it, is both unconstitutional and in high-handed rebellion against reality. It unleashed chaos and absurdity into the body politic.

Yes, marriage was already weakened by no-fault divorce and the destigmatization of adultery and fornication. The lusts, desires, and sinful passions of men had already done a number on marriage. But those passions and desires had, in some measure, been restrained by law and custom, flowing from the Tao. Obergefell unleashed those passions and placed them in the driver’s seat, harming children, weakening the social order and the natural family, and leading to the transgender chaos and in which we live.

So let’s be clear: you cannot be a little bit pregnant. He who says A will say B. He who says L, G, B, will say T, Q, +. The move from one to the other is just what cancer does when left untreated. Part of our task is to help regular Americans see the organic connection between same sex mirage and the transgender insanity. The Left is trying to use cultural acceptance of LGB to press for TQ+. We must labor to use the human recoil against TQ+ to roll back the wicked custom of LGB. This will require the same kind of intentional, patient, and courageous clarity that has marked the pro-life movement for 50 years and led to the overthrow of Roe. And a conservatism that is unwilling to conserve the most fundamental institution of human society is worthless. 

The Tao As a Mirror

But recovering the Tao is about more than simply a change of laws, as important as that is. We should aim for the Tao to be practiced in homes, preached in pulpits, taught in schools, expressed in stories, and reflected in law. This is necessary for human flourishing, the protection of children, the honoring of parents, the promotion of justice, and the prevention of civilizational ruin. 

But for Christians in particular, recovering the Tao is also good for the church’s mission. A society that seeks to live within the Tao is a society constantly engaged in pre-evangelism. Here’s how Lewis expressed this point. 

When grave persons express their fear that England is relapsing into Paganism, I am tempted to reply, ‘Would that she were.’ For I do not think it at all likely that we shall ever see Parliament opened by the slaughtering of a garlanded white bull in the House of Lords or Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads. If such a state of affairs came about, then the Christian apologist would have something to work on. For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is essentially the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man. The post-Christian man of our day differs from him as much as a divorcée differs from a virgin. The Christian and the Pagan have much more in common with one another than either has with [modern subjectivists]. (C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock (ed. Walter Hooper; HarperOne, 1994), 186.

Lewis here mentions full paganism; we might instead speak of cultural Christianity. Like classical pagans, those who are merely cultural Christians are eminently convertible. Which is why I can’t join those Christians who welcome the demise of cultural Christianity. Cultural Christianity, so the argument goes, was a hindrance to the spread of the gospel. It lulled people into a false sense of security, it covered over rank evil, and it was a stumbling block to unbelievers. So good riddance.

Now there may be truth to some of that criticism, but I think this is a significant error. Cultural Christianity never saved anyone, and to the degree that it covered over sin and wickedness, God hated it, and we ought to condemn it. But cultural Christianity, however imperfect, was and is a manifestation of the Tao. In that sense, it tills the soil to prepare it for the seed. As Lewis said, it gives us something to work on and to work with. It teaches us through laws and customs and cultural practices the reality of the Tao, of God’s moral order. So, cultural Christianity never saved anyone, but it did give many a sense of sin and guilt, which prepared them for the good news of Jesus. 

Conclusion

Let me close with this. Those in the Tao know that governments, institutions, and civilizations exist for something more important than themselves. They are mortal; they will pass away. But they exist to serve people who are destined for eternal joy or eternal misery. The least we can ask of them is that they put no stumbling block in the way of the former, and offer no slippery slope toward the latter. 

The recovery of the Tao is important. But it’s also insufficient. This is because while the Tao is crucial for teaching what is good, and for restraining evil, it is ultimately impotent to deal with our greatest need. 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? 

Earlier I noted that the Scriptures and the Tao speak with one voice. It’s now time to identify whose voice it is. And so, in response to Yoram’s exhortation earlier, let me simply close by quoting the Scriptures.

Psalm 2:1–12 (ESV): Why do the nations rage 

and the peoples plot in vain? 

 2  The kings of the earth set themselves, 

and the rulers take counsel together, 

against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying, 

 3  “Let us burst their bonds apart 

and cast away their cords from us.” 

 4  He who sits in the heavens laughs; 

the Lord holds them in derision. 

 5  Then he will speak to them in his wrath, 

and terrify them in his fury, saying, 

 6  “As for me, I have set my King 

on Zion, my holy hill.” 

 7  I will tell of the decree: 

  The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; 

today I have begotten you. 

 8  Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, 

and the ends of the earth your possession. 

 9  You shall break them with a rod of iron 

and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” 

 10  Now therefore, O kings, be wise; 

be warned, O rulers of the earth. 

 11  Serve the Lord with fear, 

and rejoice with trembling. 

 12  Kiss the Son, 

lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, 

for his wrath is quickly kindled. 

  Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

*Image Credit: Pexels

**Editor’s Note: This address was originally delivered at the third National Conservatism Conference on September 12, 2022

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Joseph Rigney

Joseph Rigney Joe Rigney serves as President and Associate Professor of Theology and Literature at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis, MN. He is the author of five books including: Live Like a Narnian: Christian Discipleship in Lewis’s Chronicles (Eyes & Pen, 2013) and Lewis on the Christian Life: Becoming Truly Human in the Presence of God (Crossway, 2018). He also serves as a pastor at Cities Church in St. Paul.