Can the Tao Save Western Civilization?

Published May 19, 2024

National Review Online

A couple of weeks ago, journalist Jonah Goldberg penned a column, “The Fierce Urgency of Tao,” for the Dispatch. We both loved it. Goldberg appealed to what we think is one of the most important books ever written, C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, published in 1943. There Lewis ably predicted what would happen as culture shed all vestiges of what he called “the Tao.” For Lewis, “the Tao” was an all-encompassing term for moral order and moral objectivity. It provides a moral standard outside of human assessment of what is right or wrong. Moral “goodness” is not merely subjective. Goodness responds to a state of affairs as the Tao orders it. It was not an exclusively Christian term in Lewis’s usage, but it was certainly complementary to Christianity. According to the Tao, reality consists either of a recognizably imposed order that one conforms to or of the exercise of power by a person aiming to impose some order. Either way, some sort of order will assert itself.

In rejecting the Tao or supposing its absence, counterfeit Taos emerge in its place. Except counterfeit Taos are false, parasitic, and subversive while disguising themselves as all-encompassing. Think of how critical theory, with its focus on intersectionality mediated through identity, grievance, and power, exhibits all the facets of a totalizing worldview. This is because, as Lewis brilliantly foresaw, moral reality reduces to a contest between those who affirm some concept of the Tao and those who see morality as an expression of emotion, will, or power. One of the more chilling moments in the early stages of Jordan Peterson’s public career features a young woman aggressively warning the professor that he is going to be left behind because of his insistence on not having reality dictated to him. The cultural revolution and its various predecessors and successors operate on the principle that enemies can be named, shamed, and overpowered. What is right is less important than what can be achieved by a determined group.

Goldberg considers himself a champion of the Tao because, for one, he has too much common sense as a journalist and intellectual to deny it. He brings up the Tao to refer back to the protests roiling many American campuses because in them he sees yet another vindication of Lewis’s fears of a Tao-less world: a world where youths are “conditioned” not by some notion of an objective “moral good” (where Hamas is evil) but by what intellectuals fashion as “cause-worthy” and what is defined by some ideological struggle (Hamas fighting for Palestinian liberation). In this accounting, “evil” has no fixed or objective meaning; “evil” is whatever one’s enemy does to impede the other’s liberation or self-actualization. The political coalition that results is almost entirely incomprehensible, as it includes advocates of a total revolution in human sexuality as well as Muslims who would reject such a revolution. The point is not consistency, nor can it be. It can only be power. Remember, in a universe governed by the Tao, there is objective evil and objective good. Putting babies in ovens is evil. But in a Tao-less world, murdering and raping are “useful” to accomplish the will of some group, person, or ideology.

Goldberg perceptively writes:

It should be no surprise that in a world without objective standards, “feelings” become the standard of truth and meaning. How many campus controversies boil down to the fashionable view that you cannot argue with feelings? Feel oppressed? You’re oppressed. Feel angry? Well, perception is reality. Authentic feelings are invincible in any argument where the rules are rigged to enthrone feelings as the sovereign of the realm.

Of course, Jonah Goldberg is not a Christian, which means that invocations of the Tao are good insofar as everyone is paying homage to some realm of common sense, decency, and basic moral sanity. We can applaud Goldberg’s endorsement of the Tao. But it is as this point that we must admit a limitation — that the Tao is a necessary yet insufficient balm to heal all of modernity’s problems. Here, there is a tension and paradox. How can we insist on the necessity of something all the while noting its shortcoming? The paradox is that, short of something like the Tao being honored, society will further collapse. The tension comes in recognizing that the doctrine of sin has wounded humanity’s ability to consistently honor the Tao.

Even still, we are going to be playing on the Tao’s terms. Short of the Lord’s return, the ability of a diverse society to survive and flourish will be contingent on whether that society can, even amid all its fractiousness, perceive and honor the Tao. In a fallen world where there is no Christian hegemon (at least as we as Baptists would understand it), the Tao may be the absolute best for which we can hope. It offers a common ground on which to stand. Of course, genuine revival and awakening could breathe fresh air into America’s moral ecology. We should hope and pray that such a thing occurs. But diverse societies require moral sanity between the poles of a Christian hegemon and progressive dystopia. Enter the Tao.

How far one is removed from recognizing the Tao is directly proportional to how inhumane and barbaric one’s politics will be. Yet often it is the neglect or shedding of the Tao by which the Tao reasserts itself. We are learning what it means to live in a Tao-less world, and it is not a world in which human beings will flourish, even though it aims at maximum autonomy. We live in a world that is reaching a below-replacement rate in its fertility. Marriage rates are as low as they ever have been. Our retirement programs are headed for insolvency as a result. We have sent a generation of men into avocational despair as they play video games that simulate the achievements of real work. Suicidal ideation is skyrocketing. We have the language of the “loneliness epidemic” to describe our digitally hollow estrangement. Our cities are riddled with homelessness and fentanyl-strewn addicts walking in zombie-like stupors. The scent of marijuana has become a common feature of public life. For the first time in modern history we have seen reverses in human longevity among parts of the population. Men dress up as women and dance not as a joke to entertain adults but in a strange form of propaganda now aimed at impressionable children. Biological males pretend they are females and routinely rout real women in athletic competitions owing to a natural advantage that would shame any honest competitor. When the natural teleology of the sex act results in pregnancy, we draw the lines of human dignity in such a way as to exclude the unborn. We celebrate homosexual men renting the wombs of economically depressed women so we can form families deprived of maternal love. Through various aspects of the revolution in sex and marriage, we have radically increased the chances that a child will be raised without half of the male–female whole, while ignoring the fact that children who do have married mothers and fathers enjoy benefits, unknown to their peers, of being raised by members of both sexes. We treat borders as though we do not understand the natural affections and loyalties that citizens share, and then we gaslight those people when they express legitimate fears about growing chaos and a breakdown in law and order. Terrorist-sympathizing mobs awash in critical theory and Marxism occupy college campuses, policing free speech according to their preferences and taking control of public spaces as though they own them by right of their superior social insight. The authenticity of their outrage serves as a license, whether recognized by others or not.

One of the most chilling features of the sectors of our society we would describe as “woke” or neo-Marxist is that they do not express the feelings of those at the bottom. Instead, they operate at a level far above any definition of the working class. They are highly concentrated in the elite institutions, whether academic, corporate, or governmental. Any reader of C. S. Lewis can immediately see that the group leading these disintegrative movements resembles both the “conditioners” of Lewis’s The Abolition of Man and their counterparts in his novel That Hideous Strength. Our fear should be that they will continue to exert a baleful influence designed to remake men and women into creatures alienated from the Tao and therefore into humans who have forgotten themselves and instead assume the status of clay in the hands of the vanguard. Lewis feared the emergence of “men without chests” who would no longer be capable of honorable sentiments and real romance and who would instead be constantly subject to ideological and commercial cycles of stimulus and response. Eventually, we could find ourselves in need of real men and women and find that we have extinguished them.

In other words, what Western civilization has done is to press as far as the outer edges of the Tao will allow. Now, it can keep pressing and reap cultural suicide. Or, as we think is more likely, the Tao is going to strike back. But it is not going to do so without causing a lot of collateral damage. Lewis was not without hope, however, despite his grim portrayal of the situation. We might think back to his still-influential essay “Learning in War-time,” in which he charged Christian scholars and intellectuals with protecting their brethren from bad philosophy. He also upheld the example of the true scholar as one who has achieved a significant degree of immunity from the drumbeat of influence exerted by the modern (or perhaps postmodern) world through an awareness of the things that transcend the frames of particular dates, times, and places. They escape the credulity of the modern by understanding matters of greater permanence. Enter the Tao’s prophets — the “Taovangelicals.”

Not only within Christian ranks but non-Christian ones as well, there is a growing focus by many on the reality that the moral compass of the West is obliterated. Think of individuals such as Jordan Peterson, Tom Holland, Joe Rogan, Louise Perry, and Douglas Murray. We could list many more individuals in this vein. People are starting to pay attention to the myriad violations of the Tao.

How could they not be paying attention? The good news in all of this is that channeling the Tao is not difficult. It defends itself against a thousand cutting cynicisms that people know are wrong or traitorous. Activating the normies who simply love their flag, want terrorist-sympathizing critical theorists evicted from polite society, and think men should be men and women should be women is how you bring civilizations back. As we said, it is not even that difficult, really. The Tao cannot be permanently suppressed. That is why Lewis was able to identify its operation across vast distances of time and space. The Tao will emerge despite the efforts of various elites to establish a tabula rasa on which they can rewrite the contours of human nature.

We began this column by mentioning Jonah Goldberg, so let us close by concluding with him. The value of someone like Goldberg acknowledging the Tao is that allies, regardless of religious persuasion, are going to be necessary to get ourselves out of the cultural disarray we are in. There will always be persistent disagreement and divergence at the level of the true identity of the Tao. As Evangelical Christians who believe in the doctrine of revelation, we think it unlikely that the Tao would exist and not reveal more about itself. We think the Tao is fashioned by the triune God revealed in holy scripture. Many, like Goldberg, though, cannot bring themselves to go that far. Even if we wish Goldberg would, in the meantime, there is a strategic alliance to be had with those in the culture who understand that the Tao exists and that persistent struggle against it is futile.

But there is also something of a Taovangelical revolution happening among Evangelicals. We are seeing Evangelicals talk more and more about natural law and teleology than we did even five years ago. Christian pastors and thought leaders across the spectrum are all talking increasingly in this vein. There is a broad consensus emerging that, whatever you call it, whether “general revelation,” “creation order,” “creation ordinances,” “ontology,” or, yes, “natural law,” honoring creation’s design is necessary for social ethics. We should see this as a positive development in Evangelical thought and press for it to always be biblically grounded, recognizing “nature” not as a neutral sphere but as the product of God. If Protestantism is going to have a future to its public witness, we must affirm that nature itself is the product of grace.

As Christians, we should never be content to leave morality in the realm of abstraction and vaguery. We believe that the Tao emanates from the Logos of John 1 and Colossians 1. The order of the universe is governed according to Christological pattern. Lewis, writing after The Abolition of Man, would say the same thing in a letter: “Is not the Tao the Word Himself, considered from a particular point of view?”

We may be awakening in revival-like ways to the realization that only Christianity can fully satisfy the requirements for human flourishing. This was inevitable, we argue. As secularism’s deceits are exposing its absurdities, lies, and unsustainability, the truths of Christianity naturally reassert themselves. Why? Because Christianity, if true, naturally responds to the human condition. Our deepest longings cry out for Christianity to be true at some level.

A previous generation of secularists still trafficked in a moral ecology while essentially assuming Christianity. They could be intellectually dangerous and communicate ideas whose honest consequences they were unwilling to live with. We can see the regrets expressed by a figure such as Richard Dawkins, with his appreciation for the cultural Christianity of the Britain in which he grew up. In fact, Christianity could hold together a civil society that secularism was working to undermine. That is now gone, and the naked public square is very cold, unwelcoming, and inhospitable. Richard John Neuhaus warned that once Christianity was evicted, a host of devils would rush in. Watch for more of this. A lot of atheists and agnostics are getting mugged by reality. However one wants to spin it, secularism is creating a lot of Taovangelicals. That is a most welcome reality. Better yet, may they become Christians.

EPPC Fellow Andrew T. Walker, Ph.D., researches and writes about the intersection of Christian ethics, public theology, and the moral principles that support civil society and sound government. A sought-after speaker and cultural commentator, Dr. Walker’s academic research interests and areas of expertise include natural law, human dignity, family stability, social conservatism, and church-state studies. The author or editor of more than ten books, he is passionate about helping Christians understand the moral demands of the gospel and their contributions to human flourishing and the common good. His most recent book, out in May 2021 from Brazos Press, is titled Liberty for All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom in a Secular Age.

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