Jesus and the Tao

Reverend Francis RitchieSpiritual Disciplines

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”
–¬†Tao Te Ching¬†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.