Dao Du Jour II, Day 74: Playing a Playing God

Chapter 74: The Lord of Slaughter

“When people are normal and decent and
there’s always an executioner.
To take the place of that executioner is to take the place of the great carpenter.
People who cut the greatest carpenter’s wood
seldom get off with their hands uncut.”

~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)

We often focus on Jesus’ metaphysical status as the son of God. We seldom attend to the details of his social status as a carpenter. The son of the greatest carpenter was a carpenter, a profession that demands an exacting attention to detail.

The French, Christian, existential philosopher Gabriel Marcel—whose philosophy deserves far more attention and is far more good, beautiful, and true than that of his foil, Jean-Paul Sartre—made a fine cut in contrasting creation and “sub-creation.” While God’s creation is “ex nihilo,” out of nothing, our creations all depend on raw materials we did not fashion. Like the carpenter, we must work with and respect what is given if we are to make anything useful or fine or both.

This applies not just to the material material we work with, but the cultural material we inherit. Traditions are far more complex than meets the eye and easily disfigured by our desires for convenience and simplicity. Stories that have unfolded for thousands of years are truncated into the crude cliff’s notes of dogmas, propositions, bullet points. This can not only fail to convey their richness but turn them into their opposite.

In the case of Christianity, whose heart is the idea and reality of incarnation, it came to be seen as a otherworldly creed either indifferent or hostile towards the body, sex, nature, and the feminine. But the core message, of which Jesus is the medium, is that spirit is matter in drag. Much like E = MC2, the incarnation explodes our crude conceptions of matter. Matter is much, much more mysterious than common sense or the physics of the 17th century would have you believe. There is nothing more “metaphysical” than contemporary physics.

Modernity is often regarded as “materialistic,” in both its metaphysics and its ethics: it regards nature, as Whitehead put it, “as a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colorless, the mere hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly.” And its ethic, consumerism, is predicated on the extraction of raw materials from nature to transform them into so many forms of plastic. But it turns out that all of this is based not on a belief in matter, but an impoverished spiritual creed that Charles Taylor has called “excarnation.”

The most powerful expression of this theology today, of course, is technology. The rich weave of nature that the craftsman engages manually is converted into the simply binary of ones and zeros that the coder engages digitally. The craftsman has a kinship with matter both mystical and mundane, a carnal knowledge that Jesus is believed to have possessed most fully. Jesus was not just the son of God but, in some way, God itself. That would make him, in Marcel’s language, both creator and sub-creator, simultaneously holding both the master plan and this piece of wood in his hand. He would singularly see God in and as every grain, the universal in each particular.

And there is another detail that concerns us: Jesus died on a piece of wood, which floats the idea that he made the cross that unmade him. He made—he played—with full consciousness of mortality and materiality.

You might read this and conclude the lesson is that we should not play God—that we should not confuse our limited, finite, creative powers with that of the unlimited, infinite God, since we are likely to cut ourselves. But re-read the passage. Nature is the great carpenter’s wood. That means anything we touch is going to cut us and, eventually, cut us down completely. The message, in other words, is not that you shouldn’t play God, but that you can’t not play God. You are playing God, or more precisely, you are playing a playing God. When someone is accused of “playing God,” what we are really saying is that they are not playing, or rather, that they are playing for keeps: they want to win, control, and dominate. They are playing a finite game.

The Hindu tradition regards the world as “lila,” God’s play. The challenge is to play as God plays—to keep the play in play, to play infinitely. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig digs into the spiritual implications of craftsmanship and arrives at a similar truth: “You are working on a cycle called yourself,” and, as Plotinus encourages us, “never stop sculpting your own statue.”

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”