Ever ready to reduce the complexity of reality to a simple dichotomy, here I go again:
Virtually all of the debate over spirituality comes down to choosing between an empty hub or a transcendent seal.
By "seal" I don't mean an animal. Rather, my much beloved "Daoism Explained," by Hans-Georg Moeller, talks about the difference between (1) Taoism's here-and-now view of reality and (2) the Truth is there-and-then perspective of most religions (likely every religion).
Moeller says these outlooks are encapsulated by two images. One is of a wheel consisting of spokes connected to an empty hub. The Daodejing says:
Thirty spokes are united in one hub.
It is in its [space of] emptiness,
Where the usefulness of the cart is.
At the center of the wheel there is the hub, just as at the center of any efficient scenario there has to be an empty middle. This element of the scenario has four main characteristics: it is positioned at the center, it is empty, it does not move and thus it is still, and, fourth and finally, being a center it is single.
The Tao is the whole shebang, spokes and hub. You can't have a wheel without both. Yet as the wheel turns, the spokes move around and around, while the hub remains stationary. So the Tao (or Dao) is both movement and stillness, fullness and emptiness, spokes and hub.
Since the Dao is like a wheel, it is – for instance, unlike a rock (which is, as it is generally known, a quite important image in Christianity) – less a foundation or a principle for things than a structure or a pattern of happenings.
The image of the wheel demonstrates that the Dao is not to be understood as a divine source or a higher "form" in the Platonic sense. It is neither an ultimate origin or creator, nor a fundamental law of logic or nature.
However a seal, as in what a king signs proclamations with, is. The impression left by a seal is a copy of the seal itself. Less permanent, less real. But only a favored person, close to the king, is able to see the seal.
We peons only perceive the impressions. Which are the laws of nature, the physical creation – everything down here in materiality that supposedly emanates from a transcendent divine realm.
Following Moeller's philosophical language, the signifier (creation) is separate and distinct from the signified (God). This is like the difference between a copy and the original, such as a painting of a mountain and the mountain itself.
The pattern of representation is based on the gap between the full reality of the signified and the deceptive reality of the signifier. Within this pattern the two constituting elements (signifier and signified) are not equally real. One is more than the other.
This representational structure creates an "ontological" hierarchy between the signifier and the signified. The "ontological difference" entailed in this pattern is quite alien to the ancient Daoist philosophy of presence.
…There is an "ontological" hierarchy included in the relation between the seal and its impressions: by representing the seal, the impressions are of less "being" or reality – they are always secondary.
Between the hub and the spokes there is not such a hierarchy. The spokes in no way "represent" it – and they do not lack any authenticity of being in comparison with the hub.
…Unlike the relation between the seal and its impressions, the relation between the hub and its spokes is not one of presence and representation, but rather a relation between nonpresence and presence. The empty hub is nonpresent, but it nevertheless balances and unites the spokes that present the wheel.
I love it. To me this isn't dry and dusty philosophical language (though it is that also), but a deliciously moist description of two alternative approaches to living life.
I also love the ardent debates that go on in this blog between me and me, and also between various commenters to my posts – who often use a new post (entirely appropriately) as a means of carrying on a Hub vs. Seal debate.
At least, that's how I see it: Hub vs. Seal. Nonpresence vs. presence. Immanence vs. transcendence. Reality here and now vs. reality there and then. It's all good vs. there's good, better, and the best.
I used to be a committed Seal'er. My book about the Greek philosopher Plotinus looks favorably on the Plotinian notion that Platonic forms (better) mediate between this world (good) and the transcendent One/God (best). Each level of reality has a different level of being.
As Moeller said, in that view some things are more than others. Now, I'm much more in the hub camp. Yet I still have some lingering seal tendencies, for sure.
Anyway, all this is food for thought and self-examination. Empty hub or transcendent seal? Which spiritual image are you most attracted to? Or is there another image that seems more true to you?