Jesus and the Tao

Reverend Francis RitchieSpiritual Disciplines25 Comments

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

If you have an aversion to Eastern philosophy (even though Christianity is, by origin, an Eastern religion), bear with me, I think you’ll find this interesting anyway. I’ve been trying to find a cohesive way of expressing what I believe the person of Jesus calls us towards that steps into something much deeper than just a conversion to a codified religion and its accompanying world-view (Christianity). The Tao (Dao) offers something into this space. With that in mind, here I want to explore Jesus and the Tao.

Many will be aware of the Tao through a writing called the Tao Te Ching – a philosophical piece. We could have some amazing and lengthy discussions about the Tao Te Ching, but underpinning it is the idea of the Tao. It’s important to understand that the Tao is not a thing to be grasped. The Tao is most easily understood as the underlying natural order of the universe. It could be said to be the essence that underpins everything. Translations of the word ‘Tao’ give us English words like ‘way’, ‘route’, and ‘path’. Thus it’s not a thing to be grasped, but more a mode of existence that underpins everything.

C.S Lewis in his work, The Abolition of Man, talks of the Tao as a natural law and as unchanging (his dystopian future in which the grounded reality of the Tao is done away with among humans is fascinating and places power in the hands of an elite group who come to resemble something that is not human). He noted that new systems that spring up and new ideologies that are born are merely fragments of the Tao and that they owe the Tao any sense of validity they may have. It’s important to note that the Tao is different from the Christian concept of God where God is a personal entity (though such a description falls well short of the reality) whereas the Tao is an impersonal, universal way of being – it simply is. To understand it in Christian thinking (as much as it could possibly be understood), if God is the Creator then the Tao is the underlying law at work in the created universe and the intended ‘way’ for all of creation (though, as we shall see, in Christian thinking the two are brought together in a person).

All of this is an extremely superficial way of understanding these concepts – which is why the Tao Te Ching uses various forms of writing to draw one towards harmony with the Tao – much of it causes a certain amount of cognitive dissonance for the average western reader. The pursuit of much Chinese religion and various philosophies and ways of living that connect with the Tao, is harmony with it – this way of being is known as ‘De’ – cultivation of the way. Harmony with the Tao, for many, is the chief mode of life, but there isn’t a set of ‘dos and don’ts’ to such a way of life. Of course, as with any of humanity’s philosophical approaches to life there are more rigid forms of ‘De’ such as Confucianism, but I’m intrigued by the idea of our lives being about cultivating ‘the way’ (De). It is along this line and the implied natural form of ‘being’ both for us and the universe that I want to focus.

In many Chinese versions of the Bible, the Greek word ‘Logos’ is translated as ‘Dao’ (Tao). Knowing that, read John 1 and where it says ‘Word’, replace it with ‘Dao’ with the understanding that we’ve been talking about. I don’t want to try and make connections that aren’t there but there is some clarity to be found in drawing it all together that strips away some of the baggage we have placed on Christian thinking. Also, I would caution trying to make John say something that he may not be saying by drawing on Greek and Chinese philosophy and then placing the words of those concepts into what he says. This is more about connections that I find interesting and that take my faith into the language of another’s way of seeing and understanding the world.

In the thinking of Greek Stoic philosophers who followed in the footsteps of Heraclitus, ‘Logos’, most often translated as ‘word’, was a principle of order and knowledge; they saw it as a divine principle that pervaded the universe – hence the translation to ‘Dao’. Therefore Jesus could be said to be the Tao, or the Logos of the Stoics, embodied. Where Christianity differs from most thinking around the Tao is that we believe Jesus is God – is Divine. So in Jesus we have the embodiment of the Creator (“Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” John 14:9) and we have the embodiment of the intended natural order of the universe (the Logos or Tao from which everything comes – “through him all things were made” John 1:3). Thus Jesus and the Tao can be talked of in the same sentence.

So here’s the kicker – when we look to the person of Jesus (and His Divine form) we do not see the call to a religion (though the practice of said religion can be useful for what we are being called to) and we do not see the call to adhere to a predetermined list of beliefs. Rather than these things, we see the call to something much deeper – harmonization with the Tao and therefore the very intention for our humanity. We are called to be fully human; nothing more and nothing less. The language of sin then isn’t simply about breaking a predetermined set of moral rules, it’s about that which inhibits our intended life in the Tao/Logos and therefore creates conflict; establishing something other than the intended reality.

The ‘rules’ of Christianity and all the dos and don’ts it’s turned into are, at best, a derivative and a shadow of the Tao – where Christianity is too often reduced to a moral and ethical code to live by. Rather than this, Christianity is the rules stripped away and the spotlight put on the transformation God works in us to recreate us to our true state as part of the Tao or Logos – His intended order for the universe/creation. Our role is to simply open our lives up to that transformation and to walk ‘the way’. Christ as both God and the Tao/Logos is the gateway (“I am the way”) to us being a new creation shaped towards that intended reality – the reality that underpins the universe – Jesus.

There is something formlessly created
Born before Heaven and Earth
So silent! So ethereal!
Independent and changeless
Circulating and ceaseless
It can be regarded as the mother of the world

I do not know its name
Identifying it, I call it “Tao”
–Β Tao Te ChingΒ Chapter 25

Identifying it, I call it Jesus the Christ – not merely a principle but a person. Food for thought and if you continue with it there are many many head-trips in there when Jesus, our journey, and many popular Christian concepts are considered.

  • Mathew

    Very well articulated Francis, a breath of fresh air.

    I am a westerner who tends to think a little more eastern, this gets me into a lot of trouble with western minded people, for example, pointing out how unaware we are is to the western mind being critical.

    Within my recent research on how different eastern and western minds think, the western mind focuses on the strengths while the eastern mind focuses on the weaknesses. Pointing out a weakness, especially in awareness, is sacrilegious to the western mind but isn’t to the eastern mind.

    In regards to Christianity and Taoism, does not Taoism also make reference, as such, to the holy trinity, the three attributes/laws to creating life/existence?

  • JR17

    I completely agree… in fact I’ll take your point even deeper. I’m beginning to realize that the Quran, the Bible, the Tao, A Course in Miracles all point to the same thing when one looks at it through faith. All of these books are written in a way to make us “think” with our heart..I’ve come to realize that Genesis 1 is all there is. The “God” in Genesis 3 is actually “Satan” (which doesn’t exist) & the whole rest of the old testament points to the way back to truth with Moses but people still didn’t understand so the New Testament was sent with Jesus leading back to the truth… but people still didn’t understand so the Quran was sent. People are misunderstanding that! 3 different religions are sending us further into insanity.

    God is love. God is our heart. God is us but he doesn’t know that. It’s for us to figure out individually. God hates rules & punishment… & he hates to be afraid… yet most of us continue to follow our misprogrammed subconscious minds based on societies which are based on religions that are going against everything God ever wanted… & the Universe is following the laws of man unfortunately… when did the mind of a man become more powerful than the heart of God?

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment JR17. I’m not sure I would describe that as taking my comment deeper. Rather, I think it takes it off on a tangent πŸ™‚

      Your thinking is interesting. Obviously, as someone who would identify as an orthodox Christian (with a broad openness to the thinking of others and what I can learn from various faith traditions), there are elements of your comment I disagree with (I wouldn’t consider ACIM to be even close to the Bible for instance) and elements I find intriguing.

  • Zarozian

    Why is it that in every Christian/Taoism article I read, it’s always some Christian bigot trying to step on Taoism, saying that Christ is the Tao? Only this time around someone actually has a good understanding of Taoism but still at the very end you impose Jesus as if he is the only way. But in Taoism there are many ways and that’s why you Christians should at least respect the religions of other people instead of deeming your religion as the only way. But more than anything I feel like Jesus is standing in your way blocking you from seeing anything else but him.

    • Hi Zarozian. I hear you and from your side, I get the frustration. I really do.

      Part of what I want to do with such things is help Christians who see all outside of their frame of reference as bad, instead see the commonality and beauty that can be found in the thoughts of others even when they don’t, at first glance, line up with our own frame of reference. Rather than trying to impose Jesus as the only way (I would rather use language that says he is ‘the way’ – the difference may seem subtle, but how we read that can have big implications), I’m trying to help people who might push away other thoughts because they can’t immediately see him, embrace the possibilities in what others have to offer. I do that because I see Jesus as more universal in nature than Christians often convey as we establish borders to our religious identity that seem to shut all else out.

      This can understandably be seen as a form of imposition much like colonialism (which Christianity has a history of) or it can be seen as a desire to meet somewhere in a shared space though, at first glance, I and a Taoist may seem very different. In that space I’m interested in how our approaches can enrich one another – it means I’m not shy about finding how what I believe relates to what others bring to the table.

      Conversation interests me and when I come to conversation with people who seemingly have a different worldview, I’m interested in listening and then expressing where I see common ground and the space to interact. The last thought is offered in that frame. It can be heard as a ‘oh, I think I get it, here’s where it crosses over with my worldview, what do you think?’

      Rather than trying to step on Taoism, I’m trying to help some people see it less as an evil threat (as some narrow fundamentalists will) and more as something that can enrich our own approach to life and faith. The fact that Taoism has many ways opens it up as a type of canvas that one can bring their own paint (our own worldview) to so the two can interact.

      I know that explanation won’t completely deal with the frustration, but I hope it helps you see where I am coming from a little.

    • Zarozian

      No but it does make me, at the very least, somewhat relieved, that someone understands the issue. But at the end of the day I think acknowledging Jesus and the Tao as two different things is better, that way it would teach us to accept the differences of others and make people realize that there is never a single right answer or a single truth in life. Jesus is your Tao for you Christians, but the same can’t be said for everyone else as everyone is different and they will walk their own Tao, and whether it will be right or wrong path, good or evil, it will be based on the perspectives of different people who have had different experiences in their life which will have them take different views on things. If you want to see the truth you’d have to see it through all perspectives to get the full picture.

      So I do see where you are coming from.

      But did you know what people see as evil may actually be good for some? War has never happened unless both sides thought itself right. The symbol of Yin & Yang was also meant to show you that both sides are interchangeable, Yin can become Yang and Yang can become Yin, but both sides will always have a little bit of each other within them, keeping both sides equal and balanced is considered good, but if one were to become greater than the other, then it would upset the balance and it would be considered as something similar to evil.

    • Yes, both sides thinking they are right when their right is opposing and can lead to conflict is problematic. There is significant value in the humility that realises we are not always right and that brings us to a willingness to look through the eyes of the other.

    • Zarozian

      Yes which brings me to another thing that makes human beings do good and that’s Empathy. Being able to understand how one feels and being able to feel the same pain that they do compels us to reach out and help them, but you can’t help someone who you don’t understand, some times you have to walk down the same road in life that they did to truly understand how to help them.

      And even if that conflict is problematic, that conflict itself is necessary in order to teach us something. Too much peace will bring apathy and tragedy does bring compassion. When 9/11 happened everyone lost someone, but it was because of that loss that we were able to understand each others pain and come together support one another making us stronger. But I don’t think many Christians will understand or appreciate that.

      You’re trying to help Christians understand Taoism and I respect that a lot. But what you are doing is extremely difficult and many will not see eye to eye with you and some will even call it blasphemous to think like that, but sometimes I think it might be better that way because not all conflict is bad after all but part of me also wants you to prove me wrong. I will be content with whatever the outcome, so thank you for hearing me out. You have my respect. I wish you best of luck.

    • Thank you. Where I live (New Zealand) I have a minor public profile and yes, there are many times throughout my years of work/service/ministry when I have dealt with accusation of blasphemy… and worse πŸ™‚ It’s just part of what I do.

      You mentioned that many Christians might not understand or appreciate the value of conflict, tragedy, and loss in terms of learning empathy. That may be true of some US forms of Christianity, specifically fundamentalist evangelicalism, but I don’t think it’s true of the whole. Our own history is littered with tragedy thinking back to the early days of Christianity and indeed, our faith is built on a vision of God that is ultimately empathetic. It’s in the person of Jesus (to mention him again from my perspective πŸ˜‰ ) that we encounter God as the one who becomes one of us, walks in our shoes, suffers as one of us and we believe that it’s in that unity of divinity and humanity through suffering, that true and full life (seen in the story of the Resurrection) springs forth.

      So while many of us Christians may lack empathy while we still grasp onto the vestiges of empire, power, and dominance, our own faith story carries the very DNA of that sort of empathy. It’s something we need to be shaped by more.

      Whatever worldview that empathy is birthed through, the world desperately needs many of us to engage it right now πŸ™‚

      Thanks for the conversation and for being willing to understand where I was coming from. The respect is mutual.

    • FYI you may also be interested in where I followed a similar approach with Islam and, specifically, Ramadan. The comments that follow the post show the diversity of Christian response πŸ™‚

    • Jay

      Hi Francis. I enjoyed reading this thread. My understanding of the Tao has enhanced my Christian experience and has not detracted from it in any way. One of the best experiences of my life has been dissolving the walls that I have built to separate myself from others. At first I thought the walls were built to protect me from error, harm, exposure, failure, and the like but the time came when I realized I had become a prisoner within those walls. I am not signing up for mere subjectivism (everyone is right and no one is wrong) but my compassion for others has increased exponentially since being set free from my prison.

  • Ryan Wilson

    I have been searching for such a long time to find out if studying the Tao was ever going to be relatable to the Bible and the works of our lord Jesus!
    I finally feel that I can fall back into Jesuss’ arms!
    Thank You for writing this and helping me realize that Jesus is the Tao come to earth to show us the way!
    God Bless You! πŸ™‚

    • You’re very welcome, Ryan. I’d love to hear more of your reflections on this.

  • Reading John 1 and thinking of what Lao Tzu sensed in his spirit so long ago, its easy to say, “Jesus is the Tao.”

  • Jonathan Dolley

    Really fascinating read! Have you come across the book “Christ the Eternal Dao” by Eastern Orthodox Hieromonk Damascene? It is a beautiful book including poetry, translations of Daodejing and commentary on it from an Eastern Orthodox perspective. It also contains illustrations of the life of Christ by a Chinese artist. This book really helped enhance my relationship with Christ and the Holy Spirit and also inspired my practice of the Jesus prayer.

    I lived in China and speak Mandarin and I have struggled to find a way of communicating the gospel to Chinese friends who do not understand the typical juridical formula of the law court image used by many evangelicals. This book opened my eyes to a more Chinese way of understanding the gospel which really connects with Chinese thought and culture.

    In the book he translated ‘De’ as ‘grace’ so that ‘Dao de’ becomes the ‘grace of Christ’. In his use of the word, ‘grace’ implies the active force of God’s overflowing love, almost as if God’s grace is understood as being an energy imbued with God’s personal divine love flowing out from the Trinity and communicated by the Holy Spirit. The Way we walk is in this grace of Christ which is given by the Holy Spirit. He suggests that ‘acquisition’ of the grace of the Holy Spirit by opening ourselves to God through repentance, prayer, generous acts, receiving the sacraments etc. brings us into ever deeper unity with Christ the Dao.

    • Jonathan, thanks for that comment! I love it. I haven’t come across that book but will look it up. I love what happens when we stop viewing Christianity has a culture in and of itself, and rather see it as something that affirms the good in all cultures and challenges that which dehumanises us. Seeing it like this allows us to find corresponding stories, ideas and concepts all over the place – allowing our cultures to show Christ to us in profound ways.

    • Jonathan Dolley

      Yes, and I think it is also important to see how our own cultures inevitably shape our versions Christianity often in ways we don’t at first realise. Placing ourselves in the shoes of people from other cultures and looking back at our own dogmas and doctrines from a different perspective helps us to discover what ideas we have unintentionally imported into our version of Christianity and imposed on our reading of scripture. I hope you don’t mind me offering you an example of how this has worked out in my own life. Sorry it’s a bit long.

      My background is in the charismatic (reformed) evangelical free church movement in the UK (which I am still part of) but I have really benefited from visiting Chinese churches, reading about Daoism and visiting Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican churches. Consequently my views of baptism, holy communion and the shape of gathered worship have changed.

      I think perhaps as a result of the modern dualism between mind/spirit and matter that we western Christians often make our faith and spiritual experience too much about doctrine and intellectual understanding. I grew up implicitly believing that spiritual benefit can only be obtained from what can be grasped by the thinking mind. Believing and trusting in Christ becomes all about what you think about Him and then how you respond to those thoughts in practice. The spiritual experience of relationship with Christ is then all about getting your facts straight and then focusing your mind on Christ (whatever idea of Christ you have in your mind) until you feel some spiritual connection. The level of spiritual experience available to you is then dependent upon the completeness and accuracy of your intellectual knowledge of Christ and the gospel. This view seems to put theologians and thinkers closer to Christ than everyone else!

      As a result, baptism has importance mainly in that it is the first step of obedience to Christ and that it gives the new believer an opportunity to declare their faith, make it official. Holy Communion is then mostly about remembering. It becomes a mental event facilitated by material props. Gathered worship is an opportunity for us to sing songs that help us fix our minds on Jesus and experience an emotional (and hopefully spiritual too) response in which we feel Jesus’ love and we express our love in return.

      However, when I visited a Coptic Orthodox church I saw something radically different from this dualism at work. In their Divine Liturgy the whole service was a series of chanted prayers (mostly direct quotations from scripture and sung by a group of teenagers and children!) leading up to the climax of holy communion and punctuated by long readings from the gospels, epistles, psalms and accounts of martyrdom. Towards the end of the service the priest took a jug of water, blessed it as a reminder of our baptism vows, and proceeded to walk up the central isle dipping his hand in the jug and throwing the water all over us!

      A number of things struck me as I reflected on the experience. There on the altar was the Bread of Life. Knowledge of Christ and the indwelling of the Spirit was accessed not primarily through the intellectual (or even emotional) response to a set of ideas about someone but by a physical action involving body and mind together. In the very action of receiving bread and wine the presence of Christ Himself was taken into the body and heart as an objective physical experience. At that point heaven and earth are united, the matter of creation – the bread and wind – are filled with the Spirit of Christ according to His promise and all who share in the one bread truly are one body, united to Christ and filled with His new creation life. Out of that objective reality of eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ, flow all the subjective experiences of intimacy with Christ. But without it, all those subjective mental and emotional experiences are fleeting shadows without any anchor in reality.

      What I saw in the Coptic church provided a compelling interpretation of Jesus’s bread of life discourse in John’s gospel and shed new light on many other passages of scripture which until then I had read through the lens of my own familiar church experience. It seemed to show that the saving knowledge of Christ is given as a gift to the hungry. Jesus gives the bread of life, his own body, which imparts eternal life not through the mind as a mental event but as a physical-spiritual (and communal) event involving mind, body and Spirit together.

      As a result I have come to see baptism and holy communion as much more important than I did before. They might be seen as speech-acts filled with the Spirit’s power forming objective events in our lives which unite us with Christ regardless of the numerous differences of opinion and emphases each of us might have about Christ and Christianity. In this way they transcend culture and even language and therefore are able to communicate Christ and His gospel in any context and to carry depths and layers of meaning (and story) from the beautifully simple all the way to the most complex and profound truths.

      Until this experience I hadn’t realised just how deeply my own worldview influenced my reading of scripture and my understanding of what the church should look like.

    • Tony

      Thanks for the interesting perspective. It hard to disentangle Jesus from a dualistic world view. Good/evil and the righteous
      / unrighteous. when christianity is so dependent on these for its very existence.

      On one level, Jesus’ message is peppered with dualistic intent. Yet I can read in John, Jesus, apart from being really upset with the hypocracy of organized religion, he is pointing to a non-dualistic nature of God and Man. I wondered about the metaphor of eating his flesh and drinking his blood. In religious terms this was abomination to religious sensibilities, Christians today skip over this episode for the same reasons his disciples did, not knowing how to interpret it. Was this a reference to substitution atonement ? The pass over and the sacrificial lamb ? Or a non dualistic understanding that ingestion is a metaphor for God with in or Non dualism ? I am not making an argument here just a question. You can always point to passages out of the bible to support any point of view.

      There have been many attempts to merge eastern philosophy with Christianity One notable example was Paramahansa Yoganandya Taoism says God is unknowable, Christianity says he is knowable but remote in a place called Heaven. Soren Kierkegaard explained his existential christian view point in that was there was no difference between unknowable and separated by a chasm of sin in practical terms it is the same.

      If Jesus is was God and Man a truly unique combination of the knowable and unknowable. he could not possible explain this to the narrow minded religious class who’s very livelihood depended on their interpretation of Good and Bad (the Law) hence the frustration seen in John.

      I pray to a personal intercessor Jesus, I am not a christian but a disciple of Jesus. I am free to guess at the nature of God (the Word) I and free to practice Tia Chi without disloyalty to a Christ. To me mediation on Jesus and the Tao are two facets of the same thing ( the Great I Am)

      Its not for everyone.

    • Jonathan Dolley

      This is my understanding. I think Daoism says that the Dao is un-nameable which is to say it cannot be known through logic, reason or study. ι“ε―ι“ιžεΈΈι“ : dao ke dao fei chang dao : the dao that can be named is not the eternal dao. But the Dao can begin to be known through cultivating union with it. Though it can never be known definitively, that does not mean it cannot be known at all.

      Christ, being himself the eternal Word (or Dao), is able to create that union in us because he lived it. The union of God and humanity. The knowledge of God which is given by Christ through that union is not fundamentally an intellectual one but a relational knowledge or the knowledge of the lover and the loved.

      This kind of relational knowledge is possible precisely because God is not far away but closer to us than our own breath. In Daoism the Dao is the ground of all being. In Christianity God is the ground of all being. When we look into the core of our being we find God because it is in God that we live and have our being. Heaven then is not a far away place but a parallel dimension of reality invisible to us. We feel distant from God because we are unaware of his constant presence because our ego distorts our vision. In fact we enter heaven whenever we pray and worship. And one day heaven and earth will become one in perfect union. With Christ’s resurrection the beginning of that union had been set in motion and whenever the bread and wine are shared the foretaste of the future union of heaven and earth is made real in the present.

      As to the dualism. I think Daoism implies a dualism between two ways of relating to the Dao. One way cooperates with the Dao and the other opposes it. I think the same dualism is there in Christianity too. One can either follow Christ our reject him. And regarding the opposition of good and evil. They are not two fundamental realities of existence. Evil exists only as a failure to do good or as a distortion of goodness. They are not equal and opposite forces.

    • Jonathan, that reflects much of my own thinking on this topic really well! Thanks for adding it.

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  • Kris Soots

    In Jesus name I reached to the same, Jesus led me to this… who am I now – taoist christian, I think I just am πŸ™‚ Thank You for making sence.

    • Maria

      Thank you so much. I was so torn being a Catholic how to undersatand Tao and still be a Christian.

  • Shawn R Stewart

    Man, this blessed me today. Thank you.

    • You’re welcome, Shawn. Thanks for stopping by and reading it.