The Tao of Doubt

by Rev. Douglas Taylor


Unitarian Universalism has got to be about the only religious option that encourages doubt.  Skepticism and Agnosticism are prevalent in our congregations, and are certainly here at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Binghamton.  I see this as a good thing.  Doubt helps us to steer clear of many idolatries.  We do well to have a touch of agnosticism, a dash of doubt, if you will, in all of our religious statements.  After all, “The surest way to lose truth is to pretend you already possesses it.” [Gordon Allport Becoming, p. 17]  I have also heard it said that doubt is the handmaiden of truth.  On the whole, I find many Unitarian Universalists to be “happy agnostics” willing to consider differing perspectives, though a little hesitant to commit entirely to only one perspective, always leaving ample room for doubt.

Unfortunately, our high comfort level with doubt comes off in the eyes of others as a cheap abdication.  It looks like we lack enough conviction to take a stand.  While I strongly argue against this perspective as uninformed at best, I continually bump into it.  I wonder if any of you have experienced this?  “Unitarian Universalism?  That’s not really a religion, right?”

As a religious movement, Unitarian Universalism is constantly pushing itself beyond narrow definitions of religion.  We are perpetually searching for a better way to see and a better to describe what we experience as religious people.  We recognize that revelation is not sealed. We know that insight and growth can and often do come from unexpected quarters.  We are a community of people in the search.  We do not claim to have all the answers and do not demand of anyone to adhere to even a specific set of questions.

Because we are willing to doubt, willing to admit we do not own the corner on religious truth, we find that we are therefore willing to look to other world religions as often (if not more often) as we do to our own Judeo-Christian religious roots or our Unitarian and Universalist forebears.  Of the Eastern religions, certainly Buddhism has made the most inroads into our churches.  Buddhist meditation groups are common and I think there is a national Buddhist-UU group to help any who self-identify that way.  I would like to suggest some interesting connections I have found with another one of the traditional Eastern religions.  I want to consider Taoism, particularly as it relates to the ideas of certainty and doubt.

Lao Tzu is the first teacher of Taoism and the author of the book the Tao Te Ching.  Lao Tzu was supposed to have been born around the 6th century B.C.E.  With the decline of the reigning dynasty, Lao Tzu decided to leave to the uncivilized West.  However, at the frontier the guard demanded that he leave behind all the treasures of China that he may have with him, including his teachings.  So Lao Tzu sat down and scripted over five thousand Chinese characters and left into the wilderness, never to be heard from again.  This teaching he left with the guard has been passed down through the centuries as the Tao Te Ching, the Taoist holy text.

The first chapter of the Tao Te Ching states: “The Tao that can be expressed is not the true Tao.  The name that can be named is not the true name.”  This statement seems to say to me that if I think I know the power that creates, sustains, and transforms my life, I’m probably wrong.  If I think I’ve grasped a corner of what we call the Ground of Being, I am most assuredly mistaken.  This is where that agnostic dash of doubt comes in.  The Tao Te Ching begins with a statement that it is impossible to name or express the Ultimate Reality, the fundamental core experience of life, and yet, this is precisely the effort we undertake in our congregations.

Tao is typically translated as “the way.”  This is not altogether inaccurate, but neither is it a complete rendering of the concept.  A closer interpretation of the word Tao is “a person running along a path.” (Everyday Tao, Deng Ming-Dao. P 2) This translation makes Tao more like a verb than a noun.  This idea echos the way we speak of being on a spiritual journey.  We talk in Unitarian Universalism about being on a faith journey or a spiritual journey.  We sometimes even talk about God as a process, an event that happens, rather than a pseudo-being or thing.

A decidedly more complex interpretation of the Tao  (from Dao De Jing by R. Ames and D. Hall, 2003) says that it is best translated as at least three nuances.  It is “the way” and it is “movement along the way” but it is also “way-making.”  It is a complex concept that almost necessitates a course in Chinese culture before a fair understanding can be formed.

Witness the meeting of two great figures, Confucius and Lao Tzu, in this legendary account:

When Confucius went to Chou, he asked Lao Tzu to instruct him in the rites.  Lao Tzu relied, “… When a gentleman lives in favorable times, he hastens to court in a carriage; but when he lives in unfavorable times, he drifts with the wind.  I have heard it said that a good merchant hides his wealth and gives the appearance of want; if endowed with a rich supply of inward virtue, the superior man has the outward appearance of a fool.  Get rid of that arrogance of yours, all those desires, that self-sufficient air, that overweening zeal; all that is of no use to your true person.  That is all I have to say to you.”  Confucius withdrew and told his disciples, “I know a bird can fly; I know a fish can swim; I know animals can run.  Creatures that run can be caught in nets; those that swim can be caught in wicker traps; those that fly can be hit by arrows.  But the dragon is beyond my knowledge; it ascends into heaven on the clouds and the wind.  Today I have seen Lao Tzu and he is like the dragon!” (Lao Tzu and Taoism, by M. Kaltenmark; p 8)

So even the great Confucius had a difficult time understanding Lao Tzu and the Tao.  I have turned to another great philosopher to aid me in my understanding, one who is a little more current.  I look to Winnie-the-pooh, in the book The Tao of Pooh.  (“The Tao of who, the Tao of Pooh”)  It’s a fun book, and a helpful one, too.

It talks about the way Pooh is in comparison with the other characters in the Winnie-the-pooh stories.  “While Eeyore frets and Piglet hesitates and Rabbit calculates and Owl pontificates, Pooh just is.”  Pooh is effortless and simple.  He just does stuff and it seems to work.  As Piglet once said, “Pooh hasn’t much Brain, but he never comes to any harm.  He does silly things and they turn out right.”

Pooh spends much of his time just being Pooh and not doing anything in particular.  Christopher Robin once asked him “What do you like doing best in the world, Pooh?”

“Well,” said Pooh, “What I like best —” and then he had to stop and think.  Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better that when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.

The truth is, sometimes there just are no words to describe what is going on.  And yet there are so many books on the topic.  Wittgenstein observed that the limits of our language are the limits of our world.  And yet, as it was written in the passage I offered during the reading: “The most profound levels of life are so enormous, so deep, and so mystical that they are unnamable. When we are dealing with this most difficult and yet most meaningful part of the Tao, we have to accept that there are no words in our dictionary to define our experiences.”  “The Tao that can be put into words is not the true Tao.  The name that can assign fixed reference to things is not the true name.”

Another popular book on the subject of Taoism which recently came out in a 25th anniversary edition, is The Tao of Physics.  Taoism is a philosophy about being in the rhythm of the universe, like Pooh.  To say that Physics is the study of the rhythm of the universe may be a touch more poetic than most textbooks would allow, it is still a fairly close explanation.  The best example of the connection between physics and Taoism is found in the work of Werner Heisenberg.  Heisenberg was the first to formulate that when dealing with a subatomic particle, there will always be a level of uncertainty built into the very nature of the process.  This concept is known as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.  Most scientific process prior to this concept was structured under the presupposition that if you were uncertain about some aspect of your new formula, later scientists would eventually refine the formula into perfection.  Heisenberg said that old notion was all wrong.  There will always be that dash of doubt.  When you study these particles, there is no way to not be involved with them.  If you try to study what is happening, if you try to name what is going on, you participate in what is going on and therefore create uncertainty in the situation.  This is not a flaw in Heisenberg’s formulations, it is the nature of subatomic particles.  It is the nature of life.  It is Tao.  (Capra pp. 140, 158)

Ultimate Reality is a mystery to which we have clues, but will never fully understand. Words are helpful, but they also get in the way.  Heisenberg once said “that every word or concept, clear as it may seem to be, has only a limited range of applicability.”  The natural world and our experiences of it are complex and varied.  We live and move in a complex, multi dimensional world.  Words are like maps that represent our experiences.  And it was Alfred Korzybski who coined the phrase, “the map is not the territory.”  We are like cartographers faced with the task of creating a flat map of a curved earth.  Words can be close approximations at best, never exact representations.

One of the most captivating lines from the Tao of Physics book states, “because our representation of reality is so much easier to grasp than reality itself, we tend to confuse the two and to take our concepts and symbols for reality.” (P 28)  One of the first tenets of Taoism is rid us of that mentality.  Taoist sage, Chang Tzu wrote:

Fishing baskets are employed to catch fish; but when the fish are got, the men forget the baskets; snares are employed to catch hares, but when the hares are got, men forget the snares.  Words are employed to convey ideas; but when the ideas are grasped, men forget the words.”

Words get us there, and words get in the way; but they are all we have.  I firmly assert that anything we can say about the deepest, most profound levels of life must necessarily be filtered through our human language.  As a means of discussing all that is Holy, human words and concepts are hopelessly inadequate.  However, we must try because spiritual growth is important, and it can only be accomplished through dialogue with yourself, with your neighbor, and with your God.  We need words  for this.  After all, “the turtle only gets where it is going by sticking out its neck.” [James B. Conant]

My dilemma is this: if I were to try to articulate what I experience of God, it could only be like trying to catch running water in my bare hands, and then bring it in to the sanctuary to show you what running water is.  I simply do not have a firm enough grasp of how to communicate mystery.  It is not for lack of something to say, it for lack of words to properly articulate the experiences.

The ineffability of the Tao is the first principle of Taoism.  It demands that before we begin talking about this, we admit that there is nothing we can say.  But we are Unitarian Universalists, we like to talk.  We are a verbal and verbose religion.  Witness the fact that I have been standing here talking on and on about how mere words can’t get us there.  Mystery is a cornerstone of my theology, likely that of many UU’s.  Unitarian Universalists are sometimes seen as people without beliefs.  I think it is closer to the truth to say we have beliefs but they are coupled with the realization that mere words too often fail to express the experiences we know.  It seems to me that we are at our best when we recognize that dash of doubt, and admit that there is nothing we can say which can finally nail down any knowledge of Ultimate Reality.  And yet we shall share together what we can of what we know thus far, and trust that we shall continue to understand more tomorrow.

In a world without end,

May it be so.