"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Tao of Jesus (Part 1)

I’ve been thinking recently about Taoism. Actually, I was first thinking about China, something I do often. Taoism is something like 2,500 years old and is, along with Buddhism, one of the most popular religions in China, though it is more uniquely Chinese than Buddhism in that, unlike Buddhism, it originated in China and is closely linked with Chinese folk religions.

From my experience, you can’t really say all Chinese are religious, just like you can’t say that today about Americans. Part of this is the result of the Cultural Revolution, where religious devotion was seen as a threat to the party’s interests and was discouraged and in many cases persecuted. However, there appears to be a revival of religion in recent years, not only of Christianity but also of such faiths as Buddhism and Taoism and, though it’s more philosophy than religion, Confucianism.

Taoism is diverse, maybe similar to the way Christian belief is varied, as seen in its numerous denominations (and church splits…wink). But in my limited, non-scholarly internet research, I’ve identified several essential emphases of Taoism. I thought it would be worthwhile to compare and contrast some of these points with my Christian views and values and see where they converge with or diverge from Christianity.

But first, a preface. If you’ve heard me express my feelings about Christian mission or missionaries, I often used the word dialogue. For me, this is much more than a word for two people talking to each other. It involves listening well, seeking understanding, and possessing a confidence in what you believe tempered with a good dose of humility.

One common characteristic of Christian missions historically has been a tendency to view missions as a one-way street: a transfer of Christianity—often maybe too identifiable with Western culture, values, imperialism, and economic interests—from the missionaries to other cultures and peoples.

The Christian Church has in many ways been a light to the world, doing a lot of good since its inception. But we haven’t always been great listeners and learners, often acting a bit threatened by challenges to our worldview, be it from the sciences or secularism or other religions. But I believe fostering a spirit of listening and learning is crucial for being the kind of missionaries God calls us to be. And I do equate being a Christian with being a missionary—there is no difference in my understanding.

Listening is a key ingredient in mission. I think it’s natural to be blind to our cultural captivity—the ways our culture influences our views and values. Dialogue with others increases our self-awareness as we learn to see ourselves through the eyes of others. It also helps prevent us from simply transferring to others our culture rather than our experience of God. It enables us to better contextualize our “great news”—not completely rejecting a person’s culture or practices but finding new ways to express the lifestyle implications of the gospel in culturally-appropriate ways.

But failing to listen is also a symptom—in my opinion—of having a small view of who God is and where God can be found. I’m starting to discover curiosity as a spiritual discipline and am thinking more and more about what the results of a Church driven to understand everything about the world more deeply might mean for the witness of the Church.

I believe every living thing points to the glory of God, and thus should be approached as such. It is possible, in my opinion, to hold to my own convictions while opening myself up to the possibility not only of correction from others who don’t share my religion (or views on whatever, for that matter) but also for an expanded understanding of God that won’t just stimulate my mind but also enhance my own faith journey, my character and actions.

I want to live a more abundant life. I want to love better. I want to understand more deeply how the world works. I want to more fully and intimately experience the Divine, in all the ways God—the Holy Other—can be glimpsed in the creativity that is the diverse world in which we live. Because of these convictions, I believe in the value of religious dialogue. And it seems like there are two opposing assumptions that can be hindrances to dialogue that must be overcome.

One danger would be to suggest that all religions are really pretty similar and that one should never critique another faith. Honestly, I’ve heard few Christians actually say this; it mostly comes from outside the Church. This is well-intentioned, maybe coming from a desire to be respectful, tolerant, and repent of past imperialistic mistakes.

But I think it does an injustice to both religions being compared by denying them their uniqueness. And it discourages an inquisitive spirit that might actually lead to fuller understanding of and relationship with others.

Not only that, it closes us off to challenge. Tolerance may be a good value, but it also sounds to me like the desire of one who is unwilling to adjust their own views—a sort of stubbornness and even defensiveness where one fears he or she might have to make some changes. This does not seem to be the Jesus-spirit to me, and I suspect many (not all) who preach “tolerance” might simultaneously be suggesting “don’t you dare tell me I’m wrong!”

I’m not sure it’s my place to tell someone who doesn’t call themselves a Christian that they should abandon such a spirit. But for my Christian community and for myself—I think we must be open to the possibility that the God of Jesus might be found in the values and practices of others and that what we find might challenge some of the ways our own values and practices are missing the mark from the true spirit of Christ. Tolerance as being non-judgmental, compassionate and respectful, I can get behind. Tolerance as an excuse for not being open to change, I can’t as much.

The other danger would be to suggest that religions have nothing in common. I sense this is the more likely tendency of Christians between these two poles, and it seems to me to be an irresponsible way of looking at other faiths. I, like many others, have been quick to suggest how other faiths may look like they know God, but really are "way off.”

One can be quick to point out the differences…maybe in an effort to preserve the so-called purity of your own faith? Because we’re afraid of the Truth being something different than or beyond what we think it is? Because we’re more comfortable with black and white and being able to identify who’s in and who’s out? Because, like the “tolerant,” we don’t want to feel like we’re wrong?

It seems like there are probably different reasons for this. It may simply be a result of how the “scientific method” has influenced our thinking, which teaches us to doubt rather than accept as a means of understanding. When we assume difference rather than common ground, it seems to reflect this spirit of doubt or suspicion, rather than spirit of love or curiosity.

I prefer the latter as a method for engaging with others, as I think it is more likely to lead to unity and partnership rather than exclusion or division. And I think most would agree that the world is better off when people get along and unite for common, good purposes. The Christian Church would certainly be better off if this could be said of us.

All that said, I’ll soon post a comparison that explores how compatible or incompatible Christianity and Taoism really are. And no, I don’t think Jesus was a closet Taoist, just to get that out of the way. As far as I can tell (wink).

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