Seeking faith and wisdom in the writings of Lao Tzu.
There is a voice on the wind that calls for what someone termed “inter-faith dialogue.” That means different things to different people. For some, it is a cloak and dagger effort for conversion. For others, it is an academic exercise in perspective expansion. There are those who want to use it to water down every belief in the catch-all of universalism. And there are those who are not so much seeking a religious result, but a cultural one, hoping that a sit-down between rabbis and imams will not produce a resolution in theology, but rather a political or cultural shift that brings about peace and prosperity. I’m not sure of everyone’s agenda, but somehow inter-faith dialogue got into the water and there are some people who have put a great amount of importance on it, even if it’s rather unclear what the endgame of it all is.
I suppose I don’t fit into any of the above groups, although I am into academia and I’m all for peace and prosperity. But the problem I run into with this notion is that, as I understand it, inter-faith dialogue asks me to put an inordinate amount of value on common ground, when what really defines religions is how they are different. Put simply, I believe what makes Christianity different is that, while other faiths say “This is the way,” Jesus says “I am the way.” And, while I would like for people of other religions to also put their faith in Jesus Christ, I think there is a silliness to asking religious people to reserve the possibility that they are catastrophically wrong. Religion is important exactly because it is, well, important. Any religious person who believes other religions can also be “the way” are not, in my flawed human opinion, really religious. This doesn’t mean we have to fight wars over disagreements, but I believe religious people should value dearly whatever it is that they believe. In very John Owen-sy style, I’m just going to say that making defenses for all the counter-arguments that surely sprang up with that last statement “is not my present intention to demonstrate.”
But I think that, while still maintaining that the core of my belief system is the correct way of faith, there is still something to be gained from studying other religions. And by study I mean not simply learning that Muhammad was born in such and such year and had a revelation at such and such city. Being able to run down a few facts about major world religions is not of substantial value (although it’s better than nothing). What I mean by study is to actually read a sacred text and consider its teachings. And sometimes this might include talking with someone else about their religious beliefs **INTERFAITH DIALOGUE!**
I was drawn to this idea initially as I pondered a question that I think should unsettle any religious person given enough thought: If my religion is the right one, then why do people of other religions seem to find peace and fulfillment in their religion too?
There are a range of possibilities, but the one that I settled on was this: God’s fingerprints are everywhere, and if someone looks beyond themselves for answers, they may find the comfort that comes even with finding God’s shadow. Yahweh is too great not to be known. The heavens and the earth are his craftsmanship. Cicero is credited with saying that “Nature itself has imprinted on all the idea of god.” While the only true bridge between humanity and God is the god-man Jesus, the greatest revelation of God, perhaps it is possible for people seeking Allah or Vishnu to learn some of the truths of god using the spirit – so to speak – of the natural world as well as some sort of indwelling sense of spirituality.
Around the same time as I was considering this, I also continued to develop my affinity for things Chinese. Seriously, if the 1993 birth class was redrafted, China wouldn’t have passed on me in the millionth round. Physically speaking, my eyes are rather small, but even more remarkably I have scleral melanocytosis (gray spots on the whites of my eyes) that are more commonly found in the Asian population. As far as interests go, Chinese is my favorite kind of food, the erhu is probably my second most-favorite instrument, I like wushu fights and wushu films (Hero is in my top 5), and I just have an overall attraction to the Chinese aesthetic, be it architecture, calligraphy, pandas, dragons, weapons, landscapes, etc. (And, yes, for those of you keeping track of score at home, I think Chinese women are beautiful). Fam, I prefer to pray seated in the lotus position while listening to the guqin. While in the Field Museum’s Hall of China, I recognized the guqin song being played on the speakers. Get the picture?
But, more important than various and sundry interests of mine that are not the topic of discussion at the present time, I found that my worldview is startlingly Chinese. In one of my classes, I took a couple of tests that would assess my perspective dealing with values, social and cultural norms, and the like. My results on both quizzes more closely resembled the composite of answers given by Chinese citizens, not Americans.
So, naturally, I felt that I should look into the Chinese worldview. What is it like to see things from a Chinese perspective?
And I was also finding how Westernized my surroundings are. Not only socially/culturally, but religiously. Most versions of Christianity today are a western tradition, when Christianity started in the Middle East. What might it be like to look at faith and spirituality from an Eastern perspective? How might my Christian beliefs looked if filtered through Eastern philosophy?
All things considered, it shouldn’t surprise you that the text I decided to read twice this summer was the Tao Te Ching, a key Taoist text written by Lao Tzu sometime in the 6th Century BC.
There were two things that struck me about the Tao Te Ching. The first was the profound wisdom found on every page. This is a sacred text for a reason. Passage after passage contains a beautiful meditation on matters ranging from personal virtue to directions for leading a nation. It actually blew my mind. I loved reading it.
But the second thing that struck me was totally unexpected: Taoism is surprisingly Christian. Not in an ethical sense, as pretty much every religion is opposed to murder, rape, theft, etc. But in a theological sense, all the more surprising because because Taoism is generally considered pantheistic (no belief in an anthropomorphic God). Here is one passage from the Bible that will help illustrate one example of this:
“The world was given a beginning by that which could be called the world’s father. To know the father is to know the son, and in understanding the son you in turn keep close to the father.”
But that’s not from the Bible. That’s from Chapter 52 of the Tao Te Ching, only it uses “mother” instead of “father.”
But even more than particulars like this, the similarity lies in the value both texts place on surrender and the greatness of “god.” Throughout the Tao Te Ching, there is an emphasis on knowing oneself by emptying oneself, being a bowl that is ready to be filled, making humility extremely key. All things that are to be known or gained are supposed to come from knowing the Tao, the preeminent force through which all was created, and the Te, the Tao at work in the world. According to the Tao Te Ching, humans have a natural state that they should seek to return to, but instead they seek all sorts of vain pursuits to build themselves up, which causes the world’s problems.
That all sounds rather familiar, doesn’t it? Particularly if you are a Christian reader?
However, despite the sheer volume of wisdom and the striking similarities between Taoism and Christianity, the Gospel is still missing. Yes, the state of humanity and its relation to “god” is there, but the solution through the death and resurrection of Jesus is not.
So does that mean I throw the whole thing out?
There are a few good reasons that might persuade me to never read the Tao Te Ching again and move on. First and foremost: it’s a religion of man. At the end of the day, this is still the work of a human being, and is not divinely inspired. And besides this, while I might use the text as a source of wisdom and enlightenment, Proverbs 1:7 tells us that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” So is there anything that the Tao can teach me that the Bible can’t give me? Shouldn’t I really just read Proverbs and Ecclesiastes and James if I want to sound like a wise man?
Additionally, how can I be sure that all this wisdom even fits into Christian doctrine? There is a pervasive notion of action through inaction in the Tao Te Ching. Balance and moderation are key. I have not yet resolved if this is always helpful for a Christian, as Christians are called to take quite decisive action, actions that are often given violent metaphors. Even something like “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run… So run that you may obtain it” (1 Corinthians 9:24) would never be found in the Tao Te Ching. Isn’t Christianity very much a religion of action?
And, if I am looking for texts outside of the Bible to bolster my theology and doctrine, wouldn’t I be best just reading classics in Christian writing? Just this summer I read On the Mortification of Sin by the Puritan pastor John Owen, and it was life-changing. Are not the perspectives of Augustine, Anselm, Owen, Edwards, Lewis, Bonhoeffer, Piper, Keller, and even Trip Lee the ones that I should seek in order to further my love and understanding of God?
And, quite simply, there’s much ado in the Bible about not serving other gods. Couldn’t too much Taoism get a little dicey?
The above are really quite good reasons to set the Tao Te Ching aside and move on, keeping my Chinophile pursuits on the level of Avatar: The Last Airbender, traditional music, and General Tsao’s chicken.
But I’m not going to. Rather, with all of these reasons in mind, I will continue to come back to the Tao Te Ching, reading a chapter or two every few days (the chapters are really more like paragraphs).
I will do so, for one, because I believe the wisdom there is worth reading. I can’t see anywhere in the Bible that prohibits us from finding good advice from people just because they aren’t quoting the Bible. It turns out that Lao Tzu gives pretty darn good advice. And I’m going to take it.
That being said, I will be sure to compare it to my own scriptures. I will seek to understand how the yin and yang find themselves in the Bible. For they do, I am certain of it (ahem, Lion and the Lamb?). But this will force me to think more closely on both texts, relying on the authority of the Bible but using the Tao Te Ching as a sort of looking glass. Of course I will still hold to sola scriptura, and I will spend much much more time in the Bible, but I will give myself occasional doses of Taoism.
I believe this can help me to understand the Bible and my own theology and doctrine even better. For surely Christianity is not contained in a Western perspective. There is another world of philosophy out there that might temper certain understandings (even though the core of the belief must remain the same). As a result, this will, while increasing my knowledge and appreciation of another religion, actually more firmly establish my own religious views. In a sense I’m using interfaith dialogue to defeat one of the purposes of inter-faith dialogue (a weakening of religious zeal). Basically, by being a sort of Christian-Taoist, I will be even more Christian than I was before, if that makes sense.
And, besides this, keeping the Tao Te Ching, and perhaps some other sacred texts, close to me will further theistic mysticism – which in short is the idea that worship of other gods is preferable to atheism or agnosticism, as it acknowledges the insufficiency of humanity and looks for a solution “out there.” While the Bible spends a lot of time condemning false gods and idols, notably Baal and Asherah, I believe today’s Baal is the self. Humans worship the self and have made the individual a god. While the idols of ancient times were wood and stone, today’s is made of flesh and bone. But perhaps that discussion is for another day.
My final word to you is this: read the Tao Te Ching. Please. It’s quite short – readable in less than an afternoon – and you can find it for free here (although I prefer the Robert Brookes translation that I got for a dollar on Kindle). It will be worth your while.
And I’ll close with this, one of my most favorite passages from the Tao Te Ching, and one that has real similarity to Christian theology. Chapter 50 reads:
“You originate in life, but always return to death.
Three in ten people focus too much on extending life.
Three in ten people focus too much on fearing death.
Three in ten people focus on living life to the fullest
and thus find an early death. Why is this so?
Because such people live to excess.
It is said of the one in ten who successfully preserve their life:
When traveling they do not fear the wild buffalo or the tiger.
When in the battlefield they avoid armour and weapons.
The wild buffalo can find no place to pitch its horns,
the tiger can find no place to sink its claws,
the soldier can find no place to thrust his sword.
Why is this so?
Because he has no place for death in his life.”
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria