Tao is the Way, the Truth, the Life? Part I

tao2In many respects, the writings of C.S. Lewis have served as a bridge to many fields of thought, including: 1. Roman Catholicism (see C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church by Joseph Pearce), 2. the Emergent Church movement (see Altar to an Unknown Love), and, to some extent, the eastern philosophy of Tao. All of these influences are deeply dangerous and should remind the reader that not all that glitters is gold in the Land of C.S. Lewis. Personally, I am amazed at how popular C.S. Lewis is, and continues to be, among professing Evangelicals. When I speak to others about Lewis, I find that very few know much about his core beliefs. It would appear to me that many are familiar with a few of his fictional works, but know precious little about his core convictions and teachings. For the sake of brevity and simplicity in this post, let me offer the following summary of Lewis’ views:

1. Lewis had a strong deference towards fantasy and philosophical logic over Scripture.

2. He held to a purgatorial view of Hell which had the potential of reconciling sinners to God, postmortem.

3. He denied scriptural inerrancy.

4. He saw mankind as being innately good, and only partially depraved.

5. He held to a view of absolute human free will which clearly diminished God’s freedom and sovereignty.

6. He had a view of the atonement that denied Christ’s penal substitution.

Concerning his denial of scriptural inerrancy, the impact that this had on his writing is sadly ignored by many who should know better. Perhaps the greatest example of this is found within Lewis’ highly celebrated work, The Abolition of Man (1943), which heralds the primacy of the Eastern philosophy of Tao: a philosophy of natural law which serves as the core form of thinking within Taoism, Chinese Buddhism, and Confucianism. Lewis believed that all of the natural law can be summed up in the principles of the Tao, and that such a philosophy should serve as a core standard for life and education. Collectively, Lewis had a high regard for the “wisdom” of all world tao2earthreligions, but chose to summarize all such philosophy within the Tao:

"The Chinese also speak of a great thing (the greatest thing) called the Tao. It is the reality beyond all predicates, the abyss that was before the Creator Himself. It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road. It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the Way in which things everlastingly emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time. It is also the Way which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar."

"This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgments…There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgment of value in the history of the world."[1]

Lewis’ theorem of the Tao’s centrality as the way of life is repeated throughout The Abolition of Man. His version of the Tao was deeply eclectic, and was therefore an amalgam of various musings from all quadrants of the philosophical and religious world. For myself, I find it difficult to imagine a converted man speaking of the centrality of this “Tao,” especially within a chapter entitled: The Way. Uniquely, it was Christ who declared Himself to be the way, the truth, and the Life such that no man can come to the Father but through Him.[2] But Lewis shows no hesitation when throwing biblical texts into the same grab-bag of secular and Eastern-mystic expressions of "wisdom" in his effort to construct a body of knowledge that he calls the Tao. Believing himself to be a sound arbiter of such universal "wisdom," Lewis concludes The Abolition of Man with an appendix filled with various expressions of "wisdom." This he does in an effort to reveal the universality of the natural law in all lands and cultures. The problematic nature of his procedure should be evident, especially since Lewis fails to herald the primacy of Scripture as his infallible standard of judgment overall. Ultimately, mankind’s perception of the natural law cannot serve as a substitute for, or equal competitor to, divine revelation. A clock that is broken and therefore happens to be correct only twice daily is not made a reliable instrument thereby. For a professing believer to direct others to anything other than the Scriptures reveals a disturbing trend in thinking, especially since it elevates the broken cisterns of this world in a way that endangers others. Lewis’ personal use of the Tao only adds to the confusion of his pedagogy. Consider the following passage from The Abolition of Man, Chapter 2 – The Way:

"I myself do not enjoy the society of small children: because I speak from within the Tao I recognize this as a defect in myself-just as a man may have to recognize that he is tone deaf or colour blind."

Coming from a man who made his bread and butter from writing children’s fiction, a statement such as this is quite fascinating by itself. However, in relation to our point at hand, it is quite disturbing to find Lewis scrutinizing his indifference towards children, not from the standard of Scripture, but “from within the Tao.” In his Appendix (4. Duties to Children and Posterity), Lewis supplies a handful of references from Epictetus, Juvenal, Cicero, as well as an Ancient Chinese proverb – all of which speak about the value and importance of children; but as expected, none of them can compare to this Gospel wisdom:

Matthew 19:14: But Jesus said, “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (italics mine)

While I can thank Lewis for his honesty regarding his struggle over indifference towards children, I can offer no sympathy to one who finds his aid through Epictetus, Juvenal, Cicero, and a Chinese proverb – even a very old one – over and above the comfort and consolation of Jesus Christ. What Lewis needed in view of his admitted weakness is the same thing that anyone else needs: the eternal wisdom of Christ. The indifference that the disciples suffered from was that which required a reminder concerning the centrality, not of the Tao, but of the Gospel of Christ’s kingdom: "for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." It is the Gospel call of Jesus Christ, not the Tao, that is the "reality beyond all predicates," and it is shameful to suggest otherwise. But as a man who thought so little of the standard of Holy Writ, it should not be surprising that the mere drivel of Epictetus, Juvenal, Cicero, and various Taoist proverbs should serve as suitable substitutes for the matchless and precious words of Christ. It pains me to say it, but this was the sad reality for that inconsolable soul – C.S. Lewis.

In the next post, we will examine one of Lewis’ citations of Epictetus in order to consider the manner in which Lewis loosely interpreted and used his sources when constructing his own understanding of the Tao. Along with this, we will reveal the manner in which Lewis often failed to produce accurate citations in the Appendix of The Abolition of Man. This is not an uncommon pattern in his writing overall – he often quotes the works of others, but without offering clear citations or accurate quotes. It is a wonder that the academic world has failed to see through Lewis’ "scholarship." So problematic and frequent is this pattern in Lewis that some have bravely sought to clarify the vagaries of his citations (as in http://www.lewisiana.nl/index.htm). However, our primary focus will settle on Lewis’ desperate attempt to construct his own Tao. In particular, we will consider his interpretation and use of Epictetus in order to demonstrate that the wisdom of men is no match for the eternal truth of God.

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), pp. 18-19.
[2] John 14:6: 6. Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.

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