We don’t often study world religions and philosophies in our Bible studies and classes, and, often when we do, we study these faiths merely to disprove them. We are dismissive of the belief systems around us. I believe, however, that we can learn a great deal about ourselves when we look at these faiths openly and honestly. In Ecclesiastes 3:11, the Preacher passingly remarks that God “has put eternity into man’s heart.” I take this to mean that God has placed an awareness of the divine nature in man, enabling us to be aware of the divine even before we experience it.
If we truly believe the entirety of our world is the result of the efforts of one divine being, then the ancient faiths of this world can be seen as reflections of His divine nature. They are expressions of man wishing to experience the eternity in his heart and trying to touch the divine. Therefore, just as the Hebrew writer tells us we can see shadows of Christ in the workings of the Old Testament, I believe we can see God’s nature reflected in the ancient faiths of our world. One of these ancient faiths is the East Asian philosophical tradition of Taoism.
Taoism: Some Background
The central text of Taoism is a collection of writings called the Tao Te Ching, which can be translated loosely as the Way of Virtue. A more literal translation might be The Book of the Virtuous Way. It’s difficult to fully appreciate East Asian culture – particularly that of China – without having some understanding of the Tao Te Ching, for the text influences Chinese religion, art, and philosophy in fundamental ways. It is very much to them as the Christian Bible is to Western European culture.
The text is some 2600 years old, dating back to around 500 BCE. There is some debate surrounding this date for numerous reasons, mostly due to the ambiguity of its author or authors. The book is attributed to a man named Lao Tzu, translated Old Master or Ancient Child, who served as the Imperial Archivist under the Chou Dynasty and was possibly a contemporary to Confucius. Some debate surrounds whether or not Lao Tzu actually existed or if he is a mythological figure who embodies a collection of writers, both male and female.
The Tao and Christ
In many ways, Christ is the Christian Tao Te Ching. He is our Book of the Virtuous Way. The teachings of His and His apostles lay out the case that He is the essence of Tao.
- Tao, the Way. Chapter 21 of the Tao Te Ching says, “The greatest virtue is to follow the Way and only the Way.” In John 14:5-6, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the light…” He claims to be the path to experiencing the divine. He is our Divine Way.
- Te, Virtue. Chapter 60 of the Tao says, “Guide the world with Tao, and evil will not be a problem; not that it will not be around, but it will not find an opening.” Jesus says much the same thing in Matthew 5:43-48: Evil is in this world, but the spiritual person has no room for it in their life. Christ is our example of virtue.
- Ching, the Book. Chapter 1 of the Tao says, “Tao existed before words or names, before heaven and earth, before the ten thousand things. It is the unlimited father and mother of all living things.” John 1:1-5 shares how all things were created through the Word, and John 1:14 then claims that Christ is that word. You might also recall Peter, in John 6:68, saying Jesus contains the words of eternal life. He is our Book of Life.
To the Christian, Christ is our Tao. His are the footsteps we should follow after if our way is to be one of virtue.
What then is the Tao of Christ? The way, or the path, that we walk should align with the path He has set before us. We should walk in His footsteps in our lives as spiritual individuals. Here are just three parallels between Tao and Christ’s Way.
- Humility. The Tao Te Ching chapter 7 teaches “…the wise person puts himself last, and thereby finds himself first,” and Matthew 20:28 records Jesus saying He came to serve rather than be served. Prior to this, in verse 16, Jesus is recorded as saying the last will be first. Furthermore Tao 40 reads that “Reservation is the action of Tao. Quietness is how it functions,” and we see Jesus facing injustice and mockery silently in Matthew 27:11-31. Jesus’ Way is one of humility and quietness.
- Contentment. Tao 80 teaches, “Let people’s responsibilities be few…Let them be content with their clothes, satisfied with their homes, and take pleasure in their customs.” Jesus’ teachings on contentment are similar in Matthew 6:25-34. Also Tao 9 says, “Amass possessions, establish possessions, display your pride: Soon enough disaster will drive you to your knees.” Does Jesus not warn as much in Luke 12:13-21? Luke 9:58 reveals that Jesus claims no home as His own, but He goes about His work as the embodiment of contentment rather than ambition.
- Peace. Tao 43 reads: “The soft overcomes the hard in the world as a gentle rider controls a galloping horse.” Isn’t this similar to how Jesus says we should answer enmity in Matthew 5:43-48? In chapter 31, the Tao teaches, “A person of Tao values peace and quiet…His enemies are his enemies second, his own brothers and sisters first.” Do we not see this epitomized in Jesus’ life when the mob comes to get him in John 18, and Jesus heals one attacked by Peter. By His life, Jesus shows us He is the Prince of Peace.
Taoism is an ancient tradition of philosophy and spirituality that curiously mirrors teachings found in our own faith. Had we the time, we could more closely examine the Taoist canon and compare it to the writings in Proverbs, in Ecclesiastes, and in the epistles along with the examples we see in the life of Christ. Taoism is sometimes criticized as being “The Art of Doing Nothing,” but I think it is more accurately described as “The Art of Self Control.”
As Christians, our lives are to be epitomized by self-control and restraint. The central key to living in peace and harmony with others, in living contentedly, and in living humbly before man and God is the simple quality of self-control. Sometimes, such restraint may seem foolish as does the word of God in I Corinthians 1:18-25 or in the Tao chapter 41: “When a wise person hears Tao, he practices it diligently…When an inferior person hears Tao, he roars with laughter.” We are not conformed to this world, but rather we are seeking to conform to the divine nature of Christ. That journey begins with a principle the Taoist understands well: self control.