A name is just a name (a conversational exploration of Chapter 1 of the Tao Te Ching)

The following is inspired by Chapter 1 of the Tao Te Ching. Our translation of the entire text can be found for free online here, and as an e-book, here.

You know, don’t you, that a name is just a name? There are, after all, millions of Johns in the world, and thousands on thousands of John Bakers.

What makes you you is not your name, is it? And if I wanted to describe you, I would be hard pressed to do so with only your name to draw on. Even words I might use, like “kind” and “funny,” would only give a vague idea of who you really are. In the end, someone could hear me describe you for hours and still know less about you than if they simply sat with you for five minutes and had a cup of tea.

I’ve told you about my friend Don, haven’t I? I’ve told you that we grew up together, that he’s loyal, intelligent, shy… I think I’ve even told you the story about when he and I were lost in the woods for a day and a half when we were teenagers.

After hearing all of that, do you feel as if you know him at all? Would you be able to pick him out on the street or predict his reactions in a given situation?

For all I know, you might even meet him and decide that he’s actually shallow and stupid!

I suppose it’s the same when people talk about God.

If words can’t capture the essence of a person, how could they possibly capture something as complicated as God? And with God, remember, they don’t even have the luxury of describing a person they’ve met. In fact, they’re trying to define something we can’t even begin to understand. The resulting definition is incredibly misleading, because it implies that the universe can be simply understood.

So, if someone tries to explain God to you, remember, they may have no idea what they’re talking about and, if they do, you’re only getting a blurry, thumbnail picture of what they’re trying to describe.

I don’t know what this great mystery is that some people call “God,” but I bet — like people themselves — it’s best experienced firsthand.

If you want to avoid getting too hung up on this issue, you might keep your distance from words like “God” and the definitions attached to them. Make up your own word for life’s great mysteries and define it as you experience it.

I guess my point, if I have one, is that words aren’t enough.

Having said that, though, they certainly do help don’t they? After all, we couldn’t have this conversation without them.


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