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

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Tao of Jesus (Part Tao, er, 2)

Following up from my last post, I’m interested in what a Christian response to some of the core beliefs and values of Taoism might look like. My conviction is that those who do not share my beliefs nonetheless have a glimpse into God and the way God’s creation works in a way that I do not. This is because I, while a free individual in ways, am also bound to my own dispositions, culture, family history, genetics, social situation, historical context. I can’t see the whole picture, and need the help of others.

Listening to and understanding what Taoism has to say about the human condition and experience of Truth and the Other has the potential to enhance my own faith journey. And, if a devout Taoist were interested in what I had to say, I am confident that my testimony to the story of Christ would be powerful, possibly pushing them ever closer to understanding, to life, to love.

(The abbreviations in parentheses refer to sources, listed at the bottom of this post).

Taoism: No incarnation. (bn)
Christian response: The incarnation is essential; our whole tradition stems from the belief that God became uniquely present in Jesus. Definitely a divergence.

Taoism: The “Tao” is the first cause, found in everything. (rt)
Christian response: We would name the Tao as Creator, Maker of heaven and earth. Many Christians might be hesitant to suggest God can be found in everything, for fear of some sort of heresy (oh no!). But perhaps taking a more mystical view of how God can be encountered in the simple and mundane might have the effect of bringing us closer to God. I feel like I often act as though God is far off and I have to sort of "summon" him, rather than acknowledging God’s constant presence within and around me.

Taoism: The goal of life is harmony or unity with the Tao. (rt)
Christian response: If we’re comfortable equating Tao with God (while recognizing the ways they differ), this is a similarity, isn’t it? God’s goal seems to be harmony, union, and reconciliation with the created world. Our goals may or may not be the same, as we also talk about salvation and bringing God glory as goals of the Christian life. Being in harmony with God is a nice way to think about this, as is thinking about harmony with one another and with the earth. Seems similar to the Jewish concept of Shalom, which is also how I understand the nature of the Kingdom of God—Jesus’ central message.

Taoism: No prayer (in the sense of conversation with God); answers should be sought through inner meditation and outer observation. (rt)
Christian response: My tradition and experience in church has involved a style of prayer that is more like a conversation with a friend or a parent, or headmaster; a lot of other Christian traditions, especially Monasticism, seem to better grasp the sense of finding God and answers to our deepest concerns through silence and attentiveness. Especially considering how busy many of us are, it’s possible more time spent simply doing nothing—not talking or venting or making requests to God, but simply contemplating and remaining still—might be more nourishing for us.

Taoism: The three “jewels of character”: compassion, moderation, and humility (also translated as kindness, simplicity, and modesty). (wi)
Christian response: Faith, hope, and love? Maybe the fruits of the Spirit? Compassion could be equated to our understanding of love. Moderation/simplicity are further down the list of Christian values, I’d say, though I think commonly-made indictments of Americans’ overconsumption, materialism, and gluttony (in and outside of the Church) suggest we could stand to hear the message of simplicity. Humility/modesty…I’d say our dogmatism in how we assert our opinions of morality and theology could be lessened, though there’s no need to move toward complete relativism. One of my favorite concepts from Newbigin: making truth claims with a “proper confidence.” (from the aptly named, Proper Confidence.)

Taoism: “Wu wei”—don’t interfere with nature, let nature take its course; also expressed as “action through inaction”; problems come when we try to control our lives and nature; we disrupt harmony when we assert our will. (wi/rt/bn)
Christian response: I don’t think we have as well-developed a concept about our relationship with nature as this, though there’s a significant “green” Christian movement seeking to change that. As for the personal side of it, I think we could make some connections, such as our pursuit of faith, trust, a sense of leaving outcomes in the hands of God’s providence and running from anxiety and worry.

Taoism: All actions contain elements of good and evil; something can’t be labeled as evil or good alone. (bn)
Christian response: I'm confident part of the appeal of Eastern religions today in American has to do with the reality of postmodernity and the way spiritual seekers in my generation are often comfortable holding things in creative tension, not needing the certainty of black and white (nor believing such certainty can be obtained) but acknowledging the dualities and gray areas of life. Christians across the theological spectrum have often debated whether humans are intrinsically good or evil, coming up with arguments for both; a lot of Christians don’t feel the need to resolve this tension, preferring to acknowledge the presence of both good and evil in people and their actions. I guess it depends on how one answers this question as to whether or not one’s Christian faith is compatible with this Taoist perspective.

Taoism: God is seldom referred to because God is beyond understanding. (bn)
Christian response: I think a Christian must both resist this and consider it. I believe Jesus has given us the defining revelation of who God is, and we believe God is personal. As our Maker and Liberator, God undoubtedly deserves to be “acknowledged.” On the other hand, I think Christians can affirm the Taoist recognition of the mystery of God and the inability of finite, fallible, limited beings like us to really grasp God. Humility is needed.

Taoism: Sympathetic toward modern science; the sciences are not in conflict with the Tao. (bn)
Christian response: Historically, we’ve not been great at this. While there are exceptions, the Church has historically been quite reactive to the advances of science. Many assume such advances are threats to our core beliefs and thus feel threatened rather than embrace such advances as a means to greater understanding. Science need not be our enemy, but can be our dialogue partner, as we seek to affirm Biblical truth while also recognizing Scripture for what it is: a witness to God’s actions in history…not a textbook.

Taoism: There is nothing to be saved from; there is no duality of damnation and salvation; a joyful life is found in avoiding the pursuit of wealth, prestige or stature. (wi)
• Christian response: Salvation language is central in Christianity. Where we disagree is what we’re being saved from, or saved for, or saved to; or how specific or comprehensive that salvation is (saved from hell, from sin, from isolation, from hopelessness, from injustice, from brokeneness, for God’s glory, for mission, for eternal life, for relationship with God, some of these things, all of these things). Or how universal that salvation is (all are saved? some are saved?). Or when that salvation began/begins (We were saved? We’re saved now? We will be saved?). As for joyful living, the three “avoidances” listed above are worth considering, though I don’t care as much for negatives language as much as positives (i.e., avoiding sins as opposed to pursuing virtues).

Taoism: Not as interested in taking stances on particular social issues; such stances are useless because they are abstract concepts, not grounded in actual events. (bn)
Christian response: I like this. This sounds like situational ethics, where our stances on particular matters are secondary to doing what is most loving or good in a given situation. I see the dangers in approaching morality this way (poor judgment, moral relativism), but also think it’s worth thinking about how our sense of right and wrong regarding a given situation or contemporary social issue might be better approached dialectically, moving back and forth between our interpretation of Scripture and the present moment, lest we blindly apply what we believe are Scriptural truths and do more harm than good in the end.

Taoism: Values the process of emptying and detachment. (wi)
Christian response: Sounds like a meditative practice that much of Christianity generally fears but could really use, if we’re seeking to detach ourselves from and empty ourselves of the right things.

Taoism: “Pu”—represents the ability to be receptive, non-judgmental, able to see everything as it is. (wi)
Christian response: I don’t believe Christians are exclusively good or bad at this, though Christianity doesn’t have a perfect reputation here. Some Christians are judgmental, some aren’t. Certainly Jesus was able to truly see the real person, to see through facades and reputations; his approach to people deserves imitation. I think a Christ-follower could certainly use a little Pu-training (don’t laugh). It’s a constant temptation to make assumptions about people or allow their actions or lifestyle choices to taint our ability to love them as Christ loves them. Such a sensitivity to the world around might come from more serious spiritual disciplines, training ourselves, like Taoists, to “see correctly."

Taoism: Seems to have a well-developed understanding/"doctrine" of the mystery and physical and spiritual benefits of sex. (wi)
Christian response: Sex is bad, right?

Taoism: Scripture written by one person (Lao Tau) and seems to be a comprehensive guide for the spiritual life; there are many other famous, important Taoist texts. (wi)
Christian response: One person did not write the Bible, as we know; it’s much more like a grand library than a single, coherent piece (though it is amazingly consistent, for all its apparent contradictions). No religious text really comes close to the Bible in importance for Christians, does it?

Taoism: Like Buddhism it is a humanist philosophy about moral behavior and human perfection. (wi)
Christian response: Christianity is not in its essence about morality and perfection. However, as many are increasingly recognizing, from NT Wright's Biblical scholarship to Richard Foster's focus on character transformation, the post-Reformation Church has sorely underemphasized the centrality of good works as a part of what it means to be God’s people. I think we’re called to be imitators of Christ, not simply be indebted to Christ. The pursuit of holy living is not an evil in itself, though we can misestimate our own abilities and lose sight of importance things like grace, the cross, and the extravagant love of God.

Taoism: Linked with martial arts, which embodies Taoist principles. (wi)
Christian response: Yeah…we don’t really have an equivalent, unless you get creative: turning over tables? The Crusades? Church music wars? The art of Christian Pop music? (I recognize some wouldn't call that "art") The art of potlucks?

I won’t offer any conclusions here beyond what I’ve suggested in my “responses” above. Hope you enjoyed!

http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/2001/06/What-Taoists-Believe.aspx (bn)
http://www.religioustolerance.org/taoism.htm (rt)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taoism (wi)


joann boswell said...

In regards to your last point, my church growing up hosted Tae-Kwon-Do lessons a few nights a week. Called "Kicks for Christ."

Matt Boswell said...

No kidding? My church had something similar. I believe it was called "Jabs for Jesus."