When C.S. Lewis tried to describe the nature of reality as undergirded with order and discernible principles (The Abolition of Man), he looked for a term that would be more easily palpable to a secularized audience that was already becoming highly resistant to Christian terminology. He chose the Chinese term, the Tao, as a disarming approach to the question. Modernity is, strangely, far more receptive to the “wisdom” of non-Western cultures, while hostile to its own heritage. That itself is worthy of an article. But, for now, I’ll simply note Lewis’ attempt to speak of a reality that is a perceived and widely-accepted concept, even outside of the Christian tradition. We could ask of the universe: “Why is there something rather than nothing? And Why is the something orderly rather than chaotic?” It is this second question that interests me in this article.
In the language of early-modern physics, this order beneath things was explained in terms of “laws.” Behind that choice of words was an earlier assumption that there had been a “Lawgiver” who established the order of things. Lewis’ “Tao” sets that question aside for the sake of discussion. He offers this:
This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao’. Some of the accounts of it which I have quoted will seem, perhaps, to many of you merely quaint or even magical. But what is common to them all is something we cannot neglect. It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. Those who know the Tao can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not.
This contention stands in contrast to the current rage that reality is a “social construct,” whose order and meaning is imposed by our own collective imagination, and subject to amendment and re-configuration whenever we choose. It assumes that “reality” is the result of a collective will, with the frightening corollary that a collective will can therefore be used to change it. It is frightening because its only applications have been associated with some of the greatest crimes against humanity in history. Fixing “reality” is, apparently, a very bloody business.
For a moment, I will focus attention on the commonality within Lewis’ observation. It would be possible to say that religions tend to share the observation that there is a “givenness” to the world that is best treated with acknowledgement and acquiescence. That givenness lies behind the ubiquity of sentiments such as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (or words to that effect). If half-a-dozen religions and numerous philosophies, originating in widely separated cultures, agree on something, chances are they do so because they have all seen the same thing. That does not suggest that they believe in the same thing, but that they live in the same universe and that this universe has some clear, observable things about it. That said, I want to turn to the Christian understanding of the matter.
St. John introduced what became the foundation for all later Christian discussion when he described Christ as the “Logos” of God. The term can be translated “Word,” “Ordering Principle,” “Meaning,” and a number of other related concepts. It is not that it has multiple meanings. Rather, it is the case that it means all of those things at the same time.
The universe in which we live, St. John says, is created “through the Logos,” and that “nothing that was made was made apart from Him.” Of course, the most astounding thing written by St. John is that the Logos is actually the only-begotten Son of the Father, who became flesh as the God/Man, Jesus of Nazareth. This assertion means that the very principles that underlie all things are utterly consistent with Jesus Christ. For the Christian, it means that what is perceived in the level of “nature,” is not a contradiction of Christ, and that nature itself can only be rightly understood in union with Christ.
There is another corollary to this: we live in a world in which “givenness” plays a primary role. This should be obvious to everyone. That it is not is a commentary on the failed “spirituality of modernity” (to coin a phrase). Our daily experience constantly presents us with unchangeable realities. American health care in 2018 amounted to $3.65 trillion – an expense engendered by the unchangeable reality of illness. We live in the margins of an unyielding reality, controlling very tiny things and managing only the most minute aspects of our existence. Imagining that we are doing more than this is pure delusion.
We have a “traditioned” existence – it is handed down to us from everything that has gone before. What we are and who we are and the context of our existence is utterly bound up with the billions of lives that have preceded us as well as the sheer givenness of all things. Given that this is the case, it is little wonder that the common wisdom throughout human history has been to understand the world as it is and find our proper and healthy place within it. It is only in the madness of modernity’s imaginings that people have begun to think that everything can be molded and re-created according to the human will. The fact that this is wrong at the deepest level underlies the massive violence of our times.
A profound part of Orthodox Christian tradition is the place of understanding and embracing Divine Providence. Christ Himself and His redemption of the world are the concrete evidence and proof that God is utterly committed to the world and to working out of His good will in its midst. The world is not given to us as a problem to be solved or a project to be completed. The Kingdom of God is not an agenda. The work of God in the world, however, is just as much a given as the force of gravity or the properties of math.
St. Dionysius describes the givenness of the universe’s spiritual structure under the heading of “hierarchy” (“holy order”). The mystical structure of the liturgy is, for him, just such an example. We might say the same thing for the whole of the Orthodox way of life.
That way sets forth a path of wisdom, in which the commandments of Christ and the tradition of the Church describe for us how we should walk. It is a path that sees and walks past the delusions of the age while revealing the hidden journey of the heart to God. Only the Logos Himself can make known to us the logos of our own true self. This establishes a fundamental stance for a true spiritual life – we listen, we observe, we are discipled. Tradition (that which is handed down) is a word that describes the nature of true existence.
Most wonderfully revealed to us in Jesus Christ is the fact that the Logos is life, light, and love. We are being formed in His image as we keep the commandments, forgiving everyone for everything, giving thanks for all things.
Glory to God.