Sunday, September 06, 2009

Admiring the Tao?

The Tao Te Ching has long been one of my favorite religious texts outside of the Bible.
Mix clay to create a container
In its emptiness, there is the function of a container
Cut open doors and windows to create a room
In its emptiness, there is the function of a room.
(from the Tao Te Ching, chapter 11)
We people tend to divide into factions. When we meet someone of a different background or belief, it is a natural thing to take sides -- that is, to create divisions. It is almost a reflex to imagine every idea as a challenge to our own. A defensive reaction creates opposing sides; were they necessary or good?

In every good and true and right thing, we find common ground among cultures. Every land has had people searching for the best. The image of the clay and the potter that we saw here from the Tao Te Ching is familiar to Christians as well; we remember the Bible's image of the blessed emptiness, the holy weakness, the treasure that God keeps in jars of clay.

Some would hesitate to express unalloyed admiration for certain passages of the Tao Te Ching. Some would insist (or assume, without examining) that witnessing to Christ should involve some kind of fault-finding with someone's current beliefs. I suspect that God has called us to a better way: that witnessing involves love and redemption, making sure that nothing good is ever lost. In making sure that the good is never lost, I mean both the people and their thoughts, their existing loves and philosophies and religions. I do not think it is going too far to express unalloyed admiration for what is good in another religion. In fact, I think it is too little to merely admire a work like the Tao. Certain passages deserve more than admiration; they deserve to be owned and kept and honored as a truth that comes from the Eternal. When certain passages teach the same truths we already know, how can we not recognize a common source? How can we criticize without faulting our own? How can we oppose what is good without making ourselves enemies of the good?

Some suspect that this diminishes the truth of God or the uniqueness of Christ. If someone reacts against what I have just said from love of the truth of God, if someone's suspicion and hesitation towards this thought comes from devotion to truth of God's word and the love of God in Christ, I would hope they would hear a little more; I share a love for the truth of God's word and awe for God's love in Christ. I ask you to consider a few possibilities.

What if every culture has a memory of union with God?
What if every faith somewhere expresses this longing?
Should we start proclaiming the love of Christ by disparaging what they know? How can they trust us, if we do not even look to see what memories and longings for God they may already have, what truths they may already know? If we do not care for any beauty and goodness they may already know, how can they believe we are on the side of good?

Some, on the other hand, are satisfied to find the good in the other. I think this is too small a thing. Again, I take the Tao as a starting point: it is at many times beautiful and profound. But it gives no reason for hope in eternal life because it does not know that the Eternal is God, and that God is love. It does not know that Christ has promised to raise us up at the last day, redeeming so that the good He has made in us will not be lost but restored. The Tao may long for knowing the Eternal, but it has not dared to dream that the Eternal One loves us in such a way that He describes eternity to us as a wedding feast. Have they heard that there is rejoicing in heaven when we turn back to God? Have they heard that God loves the poor in such a way that when we feed the hungry, God counts it as service to himself? To keep the word of Christ to ourselves is to forget that it is good news, a blessing and a cause for celebration to those who understand it.

And then there is our Lord, Christ. It is not as if they did not, in a way, know how to recognize the Way when he appeared.
High virtue appears like a valley
Great integrity appears like disgrace
(from the Tao Te Ching, chapter 41)
This is not so different from what Isaiah foretold of the one who had no beauty that we should esteem him, of Christ's disgrace on the cross.

The Tao has a deep love of humility and compassion. There is also a recognition of the paradox between what appears powerful but is truly weak, and what appears weak but is truly powerful, what appears like disgrace but is really the highest integrity. So again, it is not enough to admire the Tao as a beautiful and profound text of another time and place, to put it in a box as if it were culturally isolated and had no connection to the eternal truths known elsewhere around the world. As if it were possible for eternal truths to be isolated from each other! Here, with the Tao, we proclaim Christ back to people in such a way that they can see he does not threaten any good they already knew, does not come to rob or take away the good but to fulfill it. So again, it is not enough to merely admire the Tao. We have to see the eternally true and good in it, and proclaim it again. Have they dreamed that the Eternal Tao would take human flesh and walk this earth?

Some would say that this approach diminishes the Tao more than any other approach possibly could. What is the good, you may ask, of acknowledging the eternal truth and goodness of the Tao, only to make that a subset of the proclamation of Christ? Is this not worse than calling it a culturally-limited text worthy of only patronizing, uncommitted admiration? The answer depends entirely on who is the Christ that is proclaimed. Is he merely a rival culture's culturally-limited sage, for whom the right reaction is a patronizing, uncommitted admiration? Or is he actually the Eternal One that the sages always sought? Is following him mere partisanship, or is it to meet the Truth that is the foundation for all truths? Our answer to that question shows whether we have any business proclaiming him. It will also, I think, change how we look at the glimpses of the eternal that we may find in other faiths.


Scott Morizot said...

Your post has inspired me to reread the Tao Te Ching. I have to admit I was either a late preteen or early teen the last time I read it. I tended to be more interested in Vedic literature.

Speaking now as a Christian, it strikes me that your post echoes what the ancient Christians actually did. They honored that which they found in any culture which did speak of the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.

Hmm. I guess ancient would be too limiting. It occurs to me that from what I've recently been studying the Russian missionaries to the native peoples of Alaska a few hundred years ago did the same thing.

Weekend Fisher said...

Have you ever read _Christ, The Eternal Tao_? It's an Eastern Orthodox book-length work on the same subject. I bought it for a friend, had trouble putting it down, but it still got away from me before I finished it. I won't make any comments on the book's execution of the idea (largely because I never finished it), but I have to say the idea and general approach demands a look.

Take care & God bless
Anne / LF ;)

Scott Morizot said...

No, I haven't read that book. Sounds like one I need to add to my reading list. Thanks.