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Taoism and Christianity: Anything in Common?

A few years ago, I was called to fill in when the expected Sabbath School teacher, through an honest mix up, did not come. In what was doubtless a Holy Spirit lift, I found myself speaking about the importance of discipleship with greater depth and understanding than I had previously consciously known. It came together more beautifully than I am typically able to accomplish when I spend hours in preparation. The pastor then crowned this experience by focusing on discipleship in his sermon; actually repeating several of the angles we had discussed in class. With this memory in my pocket, discipleship has been on my mind more than ever. What is it like to have a comprehensive walk with Jesus – all the time?

Despite the best efforts of some, we humans are not immune to the culture of the age. In an unconscious perversion, American Christianity has absorbed the current transactional consumer capitalistic culture that seems to infuse every aspect of society. This vein of Christianity places an emphasis on naming and claiming, rather than commitment to transformation and discipleship. Indeed, unchecked, our consumerist ethos has diverted a lot of us onto a path that is almost the exact opposite of discipleship. Jesus calls people to take up their cross and follow Him. Not take up shopping carts and acquire wealth or collect truisms. A follower of Jesus is not a status, and neither is it static or stationary.

Even if some have appeared to avoid the materialistic side of consumerism, they have sought to gain position by promoting a powerful sovereignty by legislative advocacy within the state and the church, thinking that to pursue a walk with Jesus, one needs to focus on being right with distinctive beliefs and truisms. Then God will “save us.” This is idolatry and a coercive stance that has caused organized religion to lose authority with many. Does being a follower of Jesus mandate attachment to certitude (fearfully)?

How then do we in the 21st century take up the cross and follow Him? Can it involve a variety of nuances which will capture the hearts and minds of the current generation? Are some of these lessons to be learned from other faiths and philosophies, since surely the Holy Spirit is working with all in all ages?

Taking a university philosophy class this spring, I have been struck by some overlap between Taoism and my heritage of being born into Christian thought and scripture. Could some of the fundamental precepts of Taoism speak to our quest of discipleship? In our times, many are rejecting a religion, which often uses a reductionist method that seeks only to prove points and seems to ignore synergistic power that cannot be dissected or fully understood.

Yes, belief in a Supreme Being automatically puts Christianity in a different arena than Taoist thought. For us, the crucifixion of the Son of God impacts all we believe and do. Lao-Tzu, the apocryphal founder of Taoism, recognized no supreme being, but only a fluid power that is difficult to categorize. Taoists use water as a metaphor for describing the power in their way of life. Water is malleable. Yet, it is powerful. It will enter wherever there is an opening, and it follows a path without complaining (like the Holy Spirit?).

Rather than focus on a three-tiered universe of heaven, earth, hell, Taoist thought focuses on the present; how one can optimally occupy herself now. In essence, asking the same question popularized by Francis Schaefer’s documentary “How Should We Then Live?” A Taoist does not advocate a hedonistic journey, but a way of life that assumes the optimal frame of mind will be healthiest for all to thrive. Nor is the Taoist pathway blatantly antinomian. Rather, Taoist thinking recognizes the complexity of the moment, thus urging people to be perceptive and aware, yet face life without fear.

Release the Labels of Events and Person

With beginnings at approximately 500 B.C., Taoism features a poetic willingness to embrace the unexpected and optimistically wait for positive outcomes. The first step in Taoist thought is the realization that once one names something as worthy of desire or attainment, then a person experiences a sort of confinement of one’s own making. If one has this limitation, then how can one arrive at the optimal destination? Thus, Taoists distrust the action of labeling, doubting one’s ability to properly distinguish between the good and bad or knowledge and wisdom.

Chuang Tzu, a Taoist Sage, told a parable about a farmer and his stallion that illustrates the humility of a wise one when tempted to pass value judgments on situations. A farmer responds to a neighbor’s compliment of his prize winning stallion with the phrase, “Who knows what is good and what is bad?” A series of events are described involving the farmer and his horse and each time the farmer says, “Who knows what is good and what is bad?” The denouement of the tale is when the stallion brings home a wild horse and the farmer’s son sustains a fracture trying to tame the horse and avoids being conscripted to war and thus demonstrates the blindness one truly has in assessing each circumstance.

One is reminded of the stance taken by Joseph who went from a spoilt favorite son to a slave to a prisoner to the 2nd highest ruler in Egypt. Yet through all the suffering and injustice, he remained faithful, saying to his brothers, “You meant it for harm, God meant it for good.” Genesis 50:20

Esther’s life was unconventional, as well, with high and low points. Eventually, Mordecai says to her, “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” Esther 4:14

From such a vantage point, one could say that a person is under an illusion when claiming that external events can hurt. One could also say that a person is under an illusion when claiming that external events can bring happiness. After all, an individual chooses to allow an event to hurt. Also in the end, an individual will discover the futility of basing happiness on external events.

Another self-deception occurs when a person chooses to embody the labels placed upon her by others. As soon as one believes a label, one starts on a tense journey, feeling obligated to maintain the image. For example, if you are known as a genius and you absorb that label, you will feel the pressure to act like a genius. Clinging to the desire of fulfilling a label confines a person. Smash the labels and a person is free. How freeing to simply be identified as a child of God, released from other human abstractions.

Even regarding one’s denominational affiliation, there is a special beauty and liberty in holding that identity lightly. This can provide an inoculation of sorts against deep disappointment about machinations in the church. In thus doing, a person can also avoid organizational idolatry and prideful presumption of privilege. Consider the lilies of the field. Taste and see that the Lord is good.

Solely reveling in the title “Child of God” strips away imposed confinements and words, moving a person closer to discipleship. It is easy to forget that words are only pointers. Or put another way, it is easy to only worship the teapot and not drink the tea. Words are the signifiers. Remember Jesus became The Word.

We can so easily fall into a trap of making words which speak of God, “the thing,” forgetting they are but a construct in which we see but a shadow of God dimly. By promoting our own understanding about God as the full manifestation, we construct mental idols and many under the Christian umbrella have become part of a system in which achieving “faith” is a mere defense of words and certitude. Unfortunately, that confidence is sometimes weaponized and becomes an obstacle for those seeking to follow God. We would all do well to reflect on the journeys of the apostles who, over time and in varied ways, had the scales removed from their eyes realizing that they never saw it all or understood it all.

Consider the Limitations of Debate

Taoists distrust debate as a means of ascertaining truth. As a light-hearted corrective to Confucian thought in the same era, they sought to reconfigure the role of reason. Chuang Tzu said:

Suppose I am arguing with you, and you get the better of me. Does the fact that I am not a match for you mean that you are really right and I am really wrong?…Must one of us necessarily be right and the other wrong, or may we not both be right or both be wrong?”

Indeed, Jesus seemed to relish a paradox and invite dialogue, shying away from using and proving arguments, that later became the standard of western thought. Many believe the vein of hypercertainty within Christianity is a reaction to culture now. A common critique of postmodernity states “Nothing matters and anything goes.” For many postmodern thought leaders, this is an inaccurate characterization. Rather, a more correct statement is, “It seems that everything matters, so where will we go?” Our era is complex and complicated. In an irony of our age, while computers, that infuse everything in our lives, require rigid programming to attain a desired result, the information age which it has formed, has resulted in a society that is less well programmed, messier, less rule-governed, more open-ended, more open-textured and societal results which are much more uncertain. We live in a time that people seem to know intuitively that all things do matter, so one is forced to seek, and then seek to attend to, what matters most, within the context of what else is seen and allowing that all is not seen. This sifting is performed in a diverse milieu of multiplicity, and detailed histories, with many observations and facts claiming to require the most urgent attention.

Bible readers are impacted by this worldview. In our information, sound-bite driven world, before dismissing the Bible entirely, many go through a period of attempting to grapple with Bible verses, seeking to determine which one takes precedence. Various groups like to hold up certain verses as all informative, yet ignore others. For example:

Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it. Proverbs 22:6. The examples of this not occurring are pervasive.

Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell. Proverbs 23:13, 14. With our society’s heightened awareness of child abuse, does this speak with authority to this age or provoke ridicule?

Then obvious contradictions are easy to find, such as:

Thou shalt not kill. Exodus 20:13

Thus sayeth the Lord God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side. And slay every man his brother…companion…neighbor. Exodus 32:27

More than ever, people can access viewpoints which demonstrate the complexity, contradictions, caveats and translational differences in the Bible, prioritizing a need for development of a hermeneutic for the people that will confront these seeming inconsistencies. A common critique of Christianity is that one can choose scriptural passages to meet whatever her personal agenda may be. This makes debate the less effective method of forming disciples. Rather, prioritizing a daily reflection on the life of Christ with true humility is more important than ever as we study scripture, not for knowledge but for how to live in His kingdom.

Release the Agenda

The Taoist masters understood the power and force of waiting, as opposed to seeking or pushing for a certain outcome to occur at a prescribed time. Has our drive to finish the work stunted our discipleship?

Wintley Phipps offered a great phrase at a Prison Ministries Convention this spring: “Christ didn’t come to save us but to grow us.”

Christianity has been affected by worldly ethos in which a person barters, gets, attains, achieves and performs. Yet all of these activities bolster one’s own ego and seem to impede discipleship. What is it like to let Christ grow us?

Consider the beauty of being in the moment and aware. Consider the release for one who forsakes the drive to prove abstract points. This dovetails beautifully into our understanding of the Sabbath as a Park in Time1 in which we release our agendas and workaday role. Sigve Tonstad explores this aspect of Sabbath as part of the original meaning intended by our creator.2 Sabbath is a time to walk with the Lord of the Universe.

Beyond the Sabbath, one is wise to remember that in our everyday lives, we are created to be greater than mere production units. In single mindedly executing a to-do list, one misses opportunities for dialogue, joy, and wonder. Just be. Surrender. Let it be. Releasing any identification with fame or success. Be present. “This is the day the Lord has made.” Psalm 118:24

Don’t overschedule it. Don't try to extract the meaning from what is happening. Practice radical amazement as described by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:

Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder. Awareness of the divine begins with wonder. It is the result of what man does with his higher incomprehension. The greatest hindrance to such awareness is our adjustment to conventional notions, to mental clichés. Wonder or radical amazement, the state of maladjustment to words and notions, is therefore a prerequisite for an authentic awareness of that which is.”

Spanish poet Antonio Machado said, “By walking, one makes the road…” Directives, descriptions, and definitions may start a person on the road to a fulfilling life. But, a person becomes a dancer by dancing. A person develops into an effective mother by attending to the child. A disciple of Christ may not always be correct, but she will be connected to Christ and community. It is time to clasp solely onto the identity of a Christ follower. For in Him we live, move and have our being. With honesty. And humility.

 

1. Phrase coined by Fritz Guy
2. Tonstad, The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day, Andrews University Press, 2009

 

Carmen Lau is a board member of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum. She lives and writes in Birmingham, Alabama.

Photo Credit: FreeImages.com / valerio lo bello

 

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