A Christian Reads the Tao te Ching: Chapter 40 — The Journey That Ends in Return

A Christian Reads the Tao te Ching: Chapter 40 — The Journey That Ends in Return

Spectrum Banner Image: Click for COVID-19 coverage
 

 

Written by: 
Published:
August 10, 2020

Some time ago, I discovered the Tao te Ching, an ancient book of Chinese wisdom and spirituality that has dramatically influenced my spiritual formation. This may come as shocking to some people, but rather than driving me away from a Christ-centered faith, this book has actually helped me hold onto it. If you’re feeling skeptical, feel free to check out the introduction post to the series.

Hands down, the best way to get this information is to listen to the podcast, which parallels these posts but goes into lot more detail. It also includes personal stories, readings from the Tao te Ching, and some of my own poetry when it applies to the topic at hand.

So please check out the podcast — and don't forget to subscribe and share. If you love the content, please consider becoming part of the community by supporting CRTTC on Patreon.

Find links to the previous articles in this series at the end of this article. 


The way is both a journey that ends in return

And a submission to this simple truth.

 

The myriad creatures exist this way,

From non-being to being and back infinitely.

—John Braun, Jr.

Chapter 40 is extremely short. Rather than trying to do a detailed analysis of every word, I’ve decided to use the chapter as sort of a springboard for a series of discussions and poems. I’ll start by focusing on the chapter itself and tie in some Christian theology and spiritual application. I’m also going to move through a series of poems, from a Tao te Ching paraphrase, from the book of Ecclesiastes, from Rainer Rilke, and a few of my own composition. (There are actually several more of mine in the podcast episode, but I had to cut them out for this post. You can always check out the poetry section on my blog though.)

Although we will end up pretty far away from the face value reading of this chapter, this post is an obvious example of how sometimes I find it best to just pick out a thread of meaning and follow it wherever it leads me.

The self-giving God

Reversal is Tao’s movement.

Yielding is Tao’s practice. [or “the function of the Tao” —Ron Hogan]

All things originate from being.

Being originates from non-being.

—Stephen Mitchell

As one of the shortest chapters of the Tao te Ching, chapter 40 leaves a lot open to the imagination. There are so many ways we can interpret it and apply it, so I think talking about “right” or “wrong” interpretations isn’t very helpful. For me, the TTC is a conversation partner. It stokes the fires of my imagination and shines light on new ways of thinking that help me explore my spirituality as part of the much larger and more specific narrative of Christianity.

There are parts of that narrative that we often miss, such as the self-giving nature of God. When Westerners think about God, we don’t often associate the word “giving” with our theology. If we do, it tends to lead us to talking about Christ giving his life for us and then stop there. After that, God is simply sovereign, powerful, and directive.

The ancient song/poem/hymn in Philippians is one of the most important Christological passages in the New Testament, and it is centered around the idea that Christ, rather than holding onto his equality with God and grasping at his power and sovereignty, forfeited it all in order to step down into solidarity with humanity. Theologians call this kenosis, or self-emptying, and it tells us a whole lot about God’s character if we have eyes to see it.

On an even bigger scale, scholars like Terence Fretheim have written about how by simply creating humans, God was practicing self-giving love. By making people in his image with free will and the power of imagination and creativity, God was actually relinquishing some of his own control. These words might sound blasphemous to many Christians, but they’re actually just a logical conclusion from the basic fact of human free will.

I understand that Lao Tzu wasn’t writing about the monotheistic and personal God of the Abrahamic religions. He wasn’t writing about any form of god at all. Still, I find a beautiful echo and reminder of Christian theology when I read his words:

Reversal is Tao’s movement.

Yielding is Tao’s practice.

Now, we can’t take this too far and find a direct parallel with any monotheistic view of God. For example, Agniesza Solska’s translation doesn’t really have much of a touchpoint with Christian theology. In fact, I think if we take it too far, we can end up with simple deism: the belief that, whatever this sovereign creator God looks like, he is pretty much totally hands-off when it comes to creation.

Tao is always heading

back to where it came from.

Tao advances by not pressing forward.

—Agnieszka Solska

All of this is just a reminder that although we can find echoes and resonance, we can run into a lot of confusion and even theological pitfalls if we try to make the Tao an exact parallel with a personal God.

The journey that ends in return

With that being said, there is another way. We don’t have to take this as talking about the divine at all. If we remember that Tao simply means “way” — as in the way of the universe — then we can find a very different interpretation that tells us more about our lives than the nature of the divine.

The way is both a journey that ends in return

And a submission to this simple truth.

 

The myriad creatures exist this way,

From non-being to being and back infinitely.

—John Braun, Jr.

In his reimagining of this chapter, David Jones gives a beautiful illustration of the journey that ends in return by using a poetic parable of a teacher and her students. His point is that those who walk in the Way have no need to fear death. Nature shows us that death and resurrection are built into the fabric of the universe, as we saw in chapter 22, and Christian theology operates with this as a fundamental assumption.

Jones’ poetic translation demonstrates this in a way that written prose or spoken lectures simply cannot. This is our first poem for today, and it’s a fitting place to start since it is most closely related to chapter 40:

A teacher told her students, “I will die soon.”

“No!” they cried. “Not you!”

They thought because she was their teacher

She was immune to death.

“Everybody dies,” she said. “Get over it.”

That’s The Way.

There is no resurrection without death.

 

For the people of The Way,

Death is not the opposite of life but part of life.

Endings do not always follow beginnings.

Sometimes an ending can be the first chapter in a totally new beginning.

 

The Way cycles the seasons

Spring, summer, winter, fall,

Then spring, summer, winter, fall.

 

The people of The Way cycle as The Way cycles,

Life, death, new life…

—David Jones, The Way and the Word

Cycles

Both Jones’ paraphrase and Braun’s translation pick up on something that many TTC commentators focus on: the cyclical nature of life. I’ve written about this many times before, and I’ve used the metaphor of the spiral when I’ve talked about both the cyclical nature of history and of our own personal spirituality. Like traveling up and down a helix, life is both cyclical and linear, both repetitive and progressive.

In other words, each time we come back around to the same issue, whether it is societal (like racism) or personal (like questions about faith), we come to them with a history of wrestling with them before. We don’t come in with a blank slate, so (hopefully) we find ourselves dealing with them on a deeper and richer level than we have before.

Last year, I wrote a short poem called “cycles” while thinking about the idea of death and resurrection, which is obviously a prominent and powerful theme in the Christian story. I don’t remember if I was directly writing this in response to something I read in the Tao te Ching, but I was definitely reading it a lot at that point, so I’m sure it soaked through into this piece. I think it pairs very nicely with chapter 40.

cycles

all of life runs in cycles.

inhale, exhale

the pattern of the universe.

 

from the bigness of a nebula

to the smallness of a seed

everything is death and rebirth.

 

it's not our job to escape the cycle

it's to find the current

and swim in it.

 

only in that current can we find

the spirit of god.

Meaningless?

One of my patrons, Jake Alwine, pointed out to me the way that the first chapter of Ecclesiastes sounds a lot like the Tao te Ching. In this highly poetic book, the author wrestles with the meaning of life. He tries everything under the sun to find fulfillment and meaning, only to come up short on all counts. The book begins with his famous proclamation that everything is "vanity" — that is, it is empty and meaningless. He then tries to describe the cyclical nature of life as an example of this meaninglessness.

Both Lao Tzu and the author of Ecclesiastes are acknowledging the same truth, but their response to it is dramatically different. Lao Tzu observes that life goes in cycles and decides that the best thing for us to do is make peace with that, be present to the current moment, and go with the flow of the Tao in order to be the best people we can be. On the other hand, the author of Ecclesiastes is so determined to make everything fit into a paradigm of meaning that he ends up only discouraged and frustrated by his failure to do so.

I think comparing the Tao te Ching with the opening verses of the book of Ecclesiastes teaches us that our attitude and perspective on the cyclical nature of life make a massive difference in the place we end up.

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”

says the Teacher.

“Utterly meaningless!

Everything is meaningless.”

What do people gain from all their labors

at which they toil under the sun?

Generations come and generations go,

but the earth remains forever.

The sun rises and the sun sets,

and hurries back to where it rises.

The wind blows to the south

and turns to the north;

round and round it goes,

ever returning on its course.

All streams flow into the sea,

yet the sea is never full.

To the place the streams come from,

there they return again.

All things are wearisome,

more than one can say.

The eye never has enough of seeing,

nor the ear its fill of hearing.

What has been will be again,

what has been done will be done again;

there is nothing new under the sun.

Is there anything of which one can say,

“Look! This is something new”?

It was here already, long ago;

it was here before our time.

No one remembers the former generations,

and even those yet to come

will not be remembered

by those who follow them.

The eye of the storm

So what can we do to avoid the depressing outlook created by constantly trying to force meaning out of life while also staying away from the calm, flat acceptance that we need to make peace with the fact that life simply has no meaning at all? In other words, how do we navigate between the polar opposite positions of these two authors?

Again, I think of the helix. I think this metaphor transcends both the Tao te Ching and Ecclesiastes when it comes to interpreting the cyclical nature of life. Our stories do have progression and development, and amazingly, they are all woven together. Our lives, like the rest of the universe, are connected in ways we can’t even begin to imagine — and they are all part of a much bigger story as well. For Christians, this story is that of God reconciling this broken world back to himself.

Sometimes, we are so caught up in the moment that we fail to see this progression. That’s what happened to the author of Ecclesiastes. I think that in some ways even Lao Tzu practices a willful ignorance of this fact and presents it as a virtue.

Shortly after I wrote the poem “cycles,” I drafted another one called “The eye of the storm.” This piece describes how certain events and experiences can conjure up memories from our past in a way that helps us make sense of them. There are moments in our lives when, suddenly, something “clicks” and we are able to see patterns and make meaning of past events, even ones that seemed totally meaningless or even incredibly painful.

The eye of the storm

I sit and consider the eye of the storm

As the past collides with the present.

 

A gale-force reminder, it's happened before,

in hindsight the wind and the waves are transformed,

I sit and consider the eye of the storm.

 

A sight or a sound, from earth or from heaven,

a lance of lightning that comes unexpected,

a thunderous memory, fully restored.

I sit and consider the eye of the storm,

As the past collides with the present.

Widening circles

Although it can be really encouraging and helpful when we find these moments of meaning-making, so much of our lives is spent in the in-between periods. As we move forward and grow, we can find ourselves living in what Rainer Rilke called “widening circles.” As we gather more knowledge and experience, we often experience disorientation. I can’t speak for others, but from what I have seen in my own life, if my mind is not being stretched and even disturbed, then I am probably stagnating — not growing. This disorientation usually brings up many questions about even some of the most fundamental things.

Rilke hit the nail on the head when he wrote that this confusion can even lead to questions about our very identity. Our lives are finite. We will never find all the answers, but we have to throw ourselves into the quest anyway (which is an almost direct quote from another of his poems) — even if it means we have a hard time pinning down exactly who or even what we are in the grand scheme of things.

I live my life in widening circles

that reach out across the world.

I may not complete this last one

but I give myself to it.

 

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.

I've been circling for thousands of years

and I still don't know:

am I a falcon, a storm, or a great song?

—Rainer Rilke, Book of Hours: Love Poems to God

Rilke’s observation of the cyclical nature of things led him neither to despair nor to flat acceptance and willful ignorance; instead, it led him to keep questioning. If our spiritual journeys aren’t constantly stretching us, pulling us into deeper and more challenging questions, and maybe even confounding us even as they fill us with life and vigor and hope, then perhaps we need to step back and reevaluate. As Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

I wrote this final poem in response to Rilke’s piece, and it is an attempt to capture this tension of living in spiritually widening circles while also holding onto the center — even when the pursuit of growth and the questions that come along with it have caused me to feel off-balance. Questions are good — even if they sound irreverent or blasphemous to those around you — as long as you are still pursuing truth. This was the first lesson I learned in my faith, and I think it has remained the single most important one. I’ve spent much of my life dedicated to encouraging other Jesus followers and would-be Jesus followers that it is okay to question. God can handle it.

I live my life in a widening orbit

I live my life in a widening orbit,

it seems like the center is God.

The widening always includes what's before it,

yet hungrily grasps as stardust implores it —

I live my life in a widening orbit.

 

Tilted, uneven, the circle is flawed,

the center offset — I promptly ignore it.

I live my life in a widening orbit,

the uncentered Center still God.

 

Listen to episode twenty-eight of the podcast below or on the author’s website:

 

 

Previous articles in this series:

Series Introduction

Chapter 1: What’s in a Name?

Chapter 2: Non-dualistic Thinking and Wu Wei

Chapter 3: The Upside-down Kingdom

Chapters 6 & 7: Getting in Touch with God’s Feminine Side

Chapters 8 & 78: Water You Talking About?

Chapters 9 & 10: More Money, More Problems

Chapters 11 & 16: The Empty Spaces

Chapters 12 & 14: To See or Not to See?

Chapter 13 — I’m My Own Worst Enemy

Chapters 17 & 57 — Who’s in Charge Here?

Chapters 18 & 19 — Let’s Get Ethical

Chapter 20 — The One Where Lao Tzu Gets All Emo

Chapter 21 — The Source of Everything

Chapter 22 — Dying to Self to Find Life

Chapter 23 — Healthy Spirituality 101

Chapter 24 — Standing on Tiptoes

Chapters 25 & 26 — From Chaos to Hope

Chapters 27–29 & 32 — Coming Full Circle (Part 1)

Chapters 27–29 & 32 — Coming Full Circle (Part 2)

Chapters 30 & 31 — War: What Is It Good For?

Chapter 33 — Know Thyself, Grow Thyself

Chapters 34 & 35 — A Very Bland Episode

Chapter 36 — Nonduality in Motion

Chapters 37 & 38 — Living Wu Wei

Chapter 38 — The Lower Virtues

Chapter 39 — Environmentalism

 

Corey Farr is a graduate of Northern Seminary. He is currently located in the Middle East in Lebanon, a tiny country next to war-torn Syria, where he lives and works onsite at a residential facility and elementary school for both Syrian and Lebanese orphans and children at risk. A singer-songwriter and wannabe author, Corey blogs about faith, spirituality, poetry, and (of course) the Tao te Ching at www.coreyfarr.com, where this article originally appeared. It is reprinted here with permission.

Photo by Mantas Hesthaven on Unsplash

 

We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

 

Spectrum Magazine Donation Page: Help Support Independent Adventist Journalism