The Tao of Pooh, part 1

book bingeMonday is the last day of MaryP’s book binge. I’m not an official participant, mostly because I knew I wouldn’t impress anyone with the amount of reading I do in a month. Still, here’s my unofficial contribution.

I’ve been reading Richard Kearney’s The God Who May Be, but my progress has been slow. The language is dense, like reading poetry. In fact, Kearney is a poet as well as a philosopher, so the text features a lot of wordplay, theological and philosophical jargon, and terms from Latin, Greek, French and German. It’s not designed to be a quick read; it’s designed to make one think! I wish I could say I’d finished it in April, but no such luck.

Tao of Pooh coverThe Tao of Pooh is a much lighter read, though it too is a theological/ philosophical treatise!

The concept for the book was perhaps suggested by a linguistic coincidence. Here the author imagines himself in dialogue with his protagonist (p. 10):

“One of the most important principles of Taoism was named after you.”

“Really?” Pooh asked, looking hopeful.

“Of course — P’u, the Uncarved Block.”

“I’d forgotten,” said Pooh.

Hoff explains that the “Uncarved Block” refers to things in their natural, unaltered state. Wise individuals are those who understand and accept their true, inner nature. Instead of trying to force reality into some fantastic shape, the wise work with reality.

Hoff can (and does) explain Taoism by quoting Taoist masters; but he also illustrates Taoist principles by using excerpts from Winnie the Pooh stories. For example, this bit of nonsense verse (p. 39):

Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie,
A fly can’t bird, but a bird can fly.

A fly can’t bird? Hoff interprets:

It’s obvious, isn’t it? And yet, you’d be surprised how many people violate this simple principle every day of their lives and try to fit square pegs into round holes, ignoring the clear reality that Things Are As They Are.

Everything has a function and a place in the grand scheme of things — but only if we accept it for what it is. Try to make it into some other thing, and you will only destroy it — that’s the lesson we need to learn. This is one of the great principles of Eastern thought.

Western thought — indebted as it is to Christianity — points in a contrary direction. Christianity is an eschatological religion: that is, transformation is its core principle.

In one metaphor after another, the New Testament expresses the same idea:  rebirth, re-creation, resurrection, transfiguration; put off the old man and put on the new. The book of Revelation looks forward to a day when the heavens and the earth will be destroyed, to be replaced by a new heaven and a new earth.

This is the idée fixe, the bee in the bonnet of the Christian faith. And Western society is saturated in this principle, though we have forgotten its origins in the New Testament. Transformation — progress! — is the ideal that drives us restlessly onward.

The Industrial Revolution is one expression of the ideal. Don’t leave things in a state of nature; master them, improve on them, make them work better for you. Likewise, the scientific revolution is driven by the same ideal.

We certainly enjoy the benefits of this worldview. For example, I’ve been taking antibiotics for the past five days, after realizing that a persistent cold had degenerated into a sinus infection. I slogged my way through each day of most of April, and I suppose I could have kept it up a while longer. But why would I?! Surely it’s better to act, to seek a cure if one is available!

People sometimes suppose that Christianity is a great curse, keeping people in ignorance and slavery. On the contrary, the principle of transformation — the principle underlying both the industrial and the scientific revolutions — was borrowed directly from the Christian worldview.

The principle carries over into the social sphere, too, for those who are able to imagine a better world — improving the lot of the poor, visible minorities, women, homosexuals. In my view, those who work for revolution — those who are impatient with the status quo — they are the true heirs of Jesus and Paul.

That’s why these successive revolutions arose in the West, not the East.

To be sure, the Eastern worldview has a wisdom of its own. It is the wisdom of P’u, the Uncarved Block; accepting that Things Are What They Are; making our peace with reality and, indeed, learning to embrace it.

To give a single example — the principle of transformation, if unrestrained, can do irreparable harm to the environment. Calamity may result, if we don’t learn to respect the rhythms of nature. And that lesson — allowing nature to carry us in its course, instead of diverting it down alien paths — that lesson is best learned from Buddhism, Taoism, or the indigenous peoples of North America.

But I seem to have strayed a long way from the subject of this post — The Tao of Pooh. I’ll return to it in a few days, finish up my thought, and perhaps take a look at a second Taoist principle.


13 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. storbakken
    Apr 28, 2007 @ 22:45:34

    I read the Tao of Piglet about 10 years ago and really enjoyed it. I haven’t thought about that book in years. They must have a whole line of book. Tao of Tigger would have to be c-c-crazy.


  2. Knotwurth Mentioning
    Apr 29, 2007 @ 00:35:41

    I think that claiming the western principles of materialism are based on this New Testament Newness is stretching a point a bit… after all, there is no need for a new Jesus Christ or a new God. Why? Because they are perfect. The Western demand to continuously replace your old plate with new ones is a frivolous, pointless replacement, because what you are replacing often isn’t broken. While that may be an underlying ideology, I think that to suggest it’s actually backed by the New Testament is taking the notion that we need to be reborn — reborn from a state of destructiveness and brokenness into something cleansed and repaired by Jesus — is pushing it beyond what is there.

    But very interesting analysis about the principles leading not only to newness in a materialist sense, but also social reforms. Once again, I think we can see an eagerness sometimes to scrap projects that patience and time would better suit, but nonetheless, I can see a backing somewhere behind it all in the New Testament, I suppose!


  3. juggling mother
    Apr 29, 2007 @ 03:47:18

    I also think that your idea of progress being a christian idea a little arrogant. After all some of the most scientific and advanced (for their time) cultures were long before Christianity was invented: The ancient Chinese, Greek and Roman civilizations all invented technology still in use today without reference to the New Testement – or even the old! And the great Indian and Arabian empires spanned many centuries of social progress and scientific achievement without even thinking about Christianity. It is my understanding that most cultures went backwards both socially and scientifically/technologically once fully converted to Christianity! Historically (and currently) the christian “church” is rather adverse to progress in general.


  4. Stephen
    Apr 29, 2007 @ 09:54:30

    • Storbakken:
    Welcome back — I know I’ve seen you here before. I probably should have mentioned in the post that the book was first published in 1982, so this little series has been around for a while. I wonder what A. A. Milne would have thought of the series?

    I think that claiming the western principles of materialism are based on this New Testament Newness is stretching a point a bit.

    Did I say that? I didn’t use the word “materialism” in this post, so you’ll have to explain what you’re objecting to more clearly.

    Juggling Mother:
    I also think that your idea of progress being a christian idea a little arrogant. After all some of the most scientific and advanced (for their time) cultures were long before Christianity was invented.

    Was it also arrogant of me to say that we should look to Eastern and indigenous religions for help with our environmental crisis? Or am I only arrogant if I say something positive about Christianity and the Western worldview?

    The point is, worldview matters. Should we be surprised that the Industrial Revolution did not happen in the East, where the principle of the Uncarved Block is fundamental to the worldview? It’s exceedingly difficult to trace cause and effect in something as heterogeneous as a worldview, but I don’t think the correlation I’ve emphasized here is a coincidence.

    Historically (and currently) the christian “church” is rather adverse to progress in general.

    I’ve had strained relations with the Church for a long time, so I’m not the obvious candidate to leap to the Church’s defence. But I will say that the glass may be half full, rather than entirely empty. You would do well to remember that very many of the earliest scientists were clergymen, who put their education to good use.

    What, the Church educates people? It doesn’t consign them to perpetual ignorance? What a shocking thought!


  5. juggling mother
    Apr 29, 2007 @ 10:21:08

    No, I think it arrogant of you to think the western (european) industrial revolution was the first, the best, or anything to do witn christianity.

    several centries years before our ancesters thought about changing the natural world, the chinese were making iron and steel, had invented the compass and gunpowder, paper, the chain pump and seed drill, to name but a few of the major inventions all designed to change the natural world. The Greeks get to claim the catapult, thermometers, most medical equipment and steam engines, while the Romans, amongst others, are well known for sewers, roads, central heating (probably greek), concrete, democracy, locks & keys – none of which are paticularly in tune with nature!

    And these are just the things I know about from general knowledge – I am no scholar!

    To claim that technology, or progressive thinking is a christian principle is astoundingly arrogant. It baely takes a moments thought to realise that imo.

    And I appreciate that you do not represent the “church”, which is why I put it in inverted comma’s and why I feel that it is worth having these conversations:-) I also acknowledge that a great many great thinkers, inventors and scientists have been churchmen – possibly because of the christian culture that didnt like non churchmen to e educated – but still stand by my assertion that for most of its history the christian “church” has been agaist progress – social or technological


  6. Simen
    Apr 30, 2007 @ 15:45:59

    Claiming scientific and social revolutions were based on Christianity or in some way erupted from it is giving too much credit. Where are the scientific ideas in the Bible? Where’s the industry? As you no doubt know, they’re not there. True, many Christians have advanced civilization (and for that I’m grateful), but they haven’t done so because of their Christianity. The ideas in the Bible can only be stretched so far. I’m sure if you read them carefully in hindsight, you can find such ideas in most any substantial writing from any age.


  7. Stephen
    Apr 30, 2007 @ 16:29:06

    • Simen:
    You’re misunderstanding my point. I’m not claiming that science came directly from the Bible. I’m comparing one worldview to another.

    The Eastern worldview emphasizes cooperation with nature; nature is supreme. The Western worldview emphasizes a mastery of nature leading to its transformation.

    The New Testament doesn’t tell us about bacteria or galaxies, but it does inculcate the principle of transformation as its ideal. The New Testament trains people to imagine a better world and do our part to make it happen.

    The Bible’s emphasis on mastering nature has been cited as a criticism of Christianity because of the environmental harm it has led to. I’m just pointing out the flip side: that the principle of transformation, of improving on nature, was an essential prerequisite of the Industrial Revolution, the scientific revolution, and subsequent social advances.

    Let me ask you a question: do you think Christianity contributed anything positive to Western culture? Or do you think that everything good in our society came about despite Christianity?

    • Juggling Mother:
    Say what you will about ancient China and Rome. There is a specific historical event known as the Industrial Revolution. It came later, in the Christian West.

    Was that a coincidence, or was their something in the Western, Christian worldview that facilitated it?


  8. juggling mother
    Apr 30, 2007 @ 16:43:56

    There is a specific historical event known as the Industrial Revolution”

    yep. named as such by western, victorian, historians, who were a direct produce of said revolution. And not know for their open minded approach to other cultures, histories and achievemnets.

    Not putting down the fantastic things that happened during that time, or the revolutionary change it made to the western world, but there were similar centuries throughout history and in various cultures. Many probably forgotton now.

    Also, the human mastery of the natural world was imo more a response to the empire building culture at the time, rather than the christian one. Christianity has been around a long time, and in many places, mostly without massive leaps in technology. Empire building is the similarity between the ancient chinese, greeks, romans, turks and western industrial civilisations. Does the bible encourage empire building? (not spreading the word of God, but actually subjugating nations and cultures).


  9. Simen
    Apr 30, 2007 @ 19:12:06

    Let me ask you a question: do you think Christianity contributed anything positive to Western culture? Or do you think that everything good in our society came about despite Christianity?

    I do. But I’m not sure the good outweighs the bad. And I’m certainly not sure another religion or lack of one couldn’t have led to a better world. Ah, well, we’ll never know, will we?

    My point is that if you’re going to credit Christian ideas with scientific and social advances, you must show some causal relationship between the two. Did people look to the Bible and, inspired by this, launch modern science and industry? Or is this just some correlation we can easily make in hindsight, knowing how it all turned out?


  10. 49erDweet
    May 02, 2007 @ 19:03:31

    Good post, stephen and an interesting pov.

    Face it, though. Because of their individual world views you’ll never get jm, simen, et al, to see much positive in Christianity, but in my view your point has a certain degree of merit. It’s true the Chinese invented – or otherwise ‘discovered’ lots of things. But it took a different culture than Asian to apply most of those ‘things’ universally in a manner that potentially benefited so many other nations and peoples. Whether that result was good or bad depends on one’s own pov, apparently.

    Anyway, thanks for the thoughts. Very interesting.


  11. Jamie
    May 02, 2007 @ 23:09:07

    Stephen, this was one of my favorite posts of yours in a long time. I understand the criticisms raised in this thread concerning your points, and I agree that it’s important not to simplify too much, but I loved your worldview comparisons in this post. Very thought provoking!


  12. Jamie
    May 02, 2007 @ 23:10:04

    P.S. Is there a reason my name links to your old blog in your sidebar? 😉


  13. Stephen
    May 03, 2007 @ 11:10:45

    • 49er:
    I can’t prove causation (which is always difficult to do when you’re dealing with complex social phenomena) but the correlation is obvious. I’ve quoted this Bruce Cockburn lyric before, and once again it is apt:

    “Depends on what you look at, obviously,
    But even more it depends on the way that you see.”

    • Jamie:
    The risk of over-simplifying is present, for sure. But really, I don’t think my point should be as contentious as it has proven to be. Worldviews matter.

    btw, I fixed that broken link. How did that happen?! Gremlins, I guess. Computers are full of them.


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