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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sehnsucht - the hunt for Tao?

I think this post will work best as a follow up to my earlier "Do You Like Green Eggs and Ham?". In that one I talked about the importance of desiring God. While I was responding to one of Steven Hamilton's comments, realized that I have quite a bit more to say on the subject of desire so here is at least a little bit of it.
In case you haven't noticed yet, much of my thinking, both in philosophy and theology, has been shaped by C.S. Lewis. It would be odd, therefore, if I didn't agree with what  Lewis has to say about the subject he is most respected for: sehnsucht. Lewis more often referred to this as "Joy", especially in his autobiography Surprised by Joy.  Under either term (I take sehnsucht to be the more philosophical and joy to be the more theological) Lewis is describing a phenomenon which we don't have a really good concept of in the English speaking world. We try to get at it with words like contentment, fulfilledness, ecstasy and happiness but they all fall short; they don't quite get there. Contentment misses that sense of yearning for our far off country, fulfilledness (which my spell check insists is not even a word) isn't passionate enough, ecstasy doesn't get at the sense of coming home, and happiness just isn't strong enough.  Joy, as Lewis describes it is a state well beyond emotion (although there is often emotion in it). The most effective method I have found to convey the meaning of Joy is to refer to how it is sometimes experienced. That thrill of delight when you are two chapters into a new book and you suddenly realize that it is almost exactly the sort of story you have been wanting to read but unable to find; the self forgetful delight when you are surrounded by your oldest, most comfortable friends and the day is long and you have nothing to do but be yourselves; the Monday morning you wake up and realize, really realize, that summer just started and you won't have to go back to school for three months; the tunnel vision in a groom's eye when the music changes and his bride steps into the sanctuary on her daddy's arm. These experiences often contain glimpses of Joy. 

I believe we are made for that eternally. Lewis suggested that Joy was the state of yearning for what God is; that any time we experience even a glimpse of Joy it is because we have caught a ray of the divine slipping into our existence. All of those experiences above can be times when the divine essence suffuses our lives in a slightly more tangible way. I think that we are made to experience it always. 

This is why I find it somewhat confusing when people talk about living a good life so that they can have happiness later (at retirement, in some eternal future etc...). I won't settle for that, I want joy now. I want joy in my doing; in my leading a good life. In fact I want to lead a good life because I believe that a good life is the most joyful kind of life I can lead. On a certain level I suppose this is very selfish; I want to have my cake and eat it too. I insist on living a life which leads to infinite, eternal ecstasy. But that isn't enough for me. I want that same life to be full of joy now, in fact I insist that it be the best kind of life I can possibly live. And I think that it's possible.

Jesus claimed to be the way, the truth and the life. If I focus on the way for a second, maybe it will explain what I am thinking. When Jesus said he is the way, I think that He was talking about much more that a path or a method. I think that Jesus was claiming to me something much more like the Tao incarnate. He was claiming to be (and to exemplify) the kind of life which is in ultimate harmony with the cosmos as the cosmos is designed to be. If that claim is true, then living in Him, and by His example would be both the most joy-filled way to live, and would lead to the highest form of ecstasy available to a person. Thus the desire for joy, sehnsucht, is the desire for Jesus; whether or not we recognize him as the end of that desire.

Let me end by saying what I am not saying. I am not saying that there is no pain, suffering or even anguish in joy. Actually I think that there is and I suspect that that has rather a lot to do with living in a warped and twisted world among warped and twisted persons and having a warped and twisted set of desires myself. I do think that if everyone entered into joy all the time, that suffering would be significantly decreased (Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done on earth and it is in heaven). But I think that joy is an experience, deeper than any thought or emotion and is something which can somehow persist even in the worst of circumstances. 


  1. "I think that He was talking about much more that a path or a method. I think that Jesus was claiming to me something much more like the Tao incarnate. He was claiming to be (and to exemplify) the kind of life which is in ultimate harmony with the cosmos as the cosmos is designed to be."

    i like that a lot. what i like about it is that - just like the biblical writers, especially John - you look for something that you are familiar with that really gets at something essectial, so it reminds me of John 1, where John descibes Jesus as Logos incarnate. what is really interesting, and i can't believe how little it has been used to explain Christ in the Indian context or even in your local vinyasa yoga studio found throughout america. the linguistic concept of "Om" is really the exact concept as the Greek meiterranean and philosophical concept of "Logos"...

    anyway, i think CS Lewis as a model for a philosophical and theological mentor is fantastic

  2. I know, I had this thought that the idea of an incarnate tao would probably have roughly the same jarring and possibly fascinating impact on an eastern mind as the idea of an incarnate logos would have had on the classical Greek/Roman mind. I also wonder if focusing on kingdom tao would offset the narrow systematic theology focus which has been so in vogue since the reformation. I certainly think that tao and logos are basically referring to the same eternal truth/person but with somewhat different focuses.
    On a side note, I think that there is also a fascinating parallel between the Holy Spirit as the fact/person who empowers us to live the tao and "te".