A Christian Reads the Tao te Ching: Chapters 25 and 26 — From Chaos to Hope

A Christian Reads the Tao te Ching: Chapters 25 and 26 — From Chaos to Hope

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June 1, 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.

Read the previous articles in this series here: 

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: Simplicity and Oneness

Chapter 24 — Standing on Tiptoes


In the beginning,

before the universe existed,

everything was formless and void.

Peace, Emptiness, Oneness,

Changeless, Eternal, Presence.

 

This is the Source of all things. [literally: the Mother of all things]

This One has no name.

But I will use the name God.

If I had to use another word,

I would describe God as Good.

God’s goodness is near and far, everywhere, always.

 

God is good.

Heaven is good.

Earth is good.

Humanity is good.

These four are good.

 

Humans follow the way of earth.

Earth follows the way of heaven.

Heaven follows the way of God.

God follows no one.

—Translator: Marshall Davis

On the origin of all things

Chapter 25 begins with Lao Tzu musing on the origins of the universe. It’s true, he has often referred to the Tao as the origin and source of all things, but this is the first time he gives any indication of how he thinks that happens. Up until now, the closest he has gotten to this topic is in chapter 6, where he called the Tao “the Great Mother” that gives birth to heaven and earth. As we’ve seen, Great Mother is a common name for the Tao, and it appears again in this chapter.

There was something formless and perfect

before the universe was born.

It is serene. Empty.

Solitary. Unchanging.

Infinite. Eternally present.

It is the mother of the universe.

For lack of a better name,

I call it the Tao.

—Translator: Stephen Mitchell

Still, this description of the beginning of all things is far from clear. To use very Taoist terminology, any light Lao Tzu shines on a topic seems to give just as much shadow as it does clarity. There are two points I’d like to touch on briefly, although these are massive topics that really deserve much longer treatment than I can give them here. Fortunately, there are plenty of resources out there if you’re interested.

First, the cosmology of the Tao te Ching is foreign to those who grew up with religious explanations of the universe that are based on divine creation, especially the literal seven-day kind. Lao Tzu’s understanding of the origin of the universe is far more rooted in observable nature. But we should not confuse him for a scientist or a naturalist. For Lao Tzu, things are still embedded with a deeply spiritual nature. Oliver Benjamin’s insight here is insightful, but I feel that he sets up a false dichotomy:

In ancient times there were no fields like genetics or evolutionary biology to describe how life evolved. Thus, to explain life on Earth, most religions came up with the idea of a cosmic creator God or gods that made it all happen. Taoism took a far different approach, one which is actually much closer to our modern understanding of the way living systems operate. Essentially, it employs a more organic, bottom-up view. Rather than being created by some transcendent cosmic engineer with a master plan, the world instead grows organically from a matrix written into the very fiber of all existence. Like an onion, it consists of layers built upon layers, expanding outwards. The genesis and vector of all of its development is fundamentally bottom-up, or from the perspective of our own consciousness, inward-out. —Oliver Benjamin

I find Benjamin’s analysis of the Tao to be beautiful, but I think he sells short theistic religions. Then again, I feel like Christians tend to do that too. There is, in my mind, no incompatibility between the beauty and wonder of an ever-evolving universe and the hand and majesty of a loving and creating God. So-called “theistic evolution” is an ugly and clunky theological term for saying that there need be no contradiction between the natural unfolding processes of the universe and a God who is the origin, source, and lifeblood of them all — the one in whom we and all of creation “live and move and have our being.”

In the beginning...

The second point that stands out to me is easy to miss in many translations, but it resonates so well with the first few verses of the Bible that Marshall Davis picks up on it and includes it in his translation. He says that in the beginning, before the universe existed, everything was “formless and void.” Other translations convey the same idea, but Davis’ use of these two very biblical words draw out the connection nicely:

In the beginning,

before the universe existed,

everything was formless and void.

Peace, Emptiness, Oneness,

Changeless, Eternal, Presence.

This is the Source of all things.

—Translator: Marshall Davis

The problem is, “formless and void” are themselves a very clunky, awkward, King Jamesy style translation of a very poetic phrase in the original Hebrew: tohu vavohu.* Tohu vavohu is without form; it is total and complete chaos and emptiness. The “waters” over which the Spirit of God is said to hover in this chaos seems to be everything — since according to the poetry of the text, it was only later that God separated those same waters to form oceans and sky.

Chaos was a very powerful symbol in ancient Near Eastern religious thought, and “chaos” is exactly how Stefan Stenudd thinks this Chinese word — which is hun — should be translated. He describes it as a “state where nothing is separated from the rest, a primordial mud of nothing.” Stenudd seems to be finding a connection (or, more accurately, an analogue) with both the biblical origin story and the scientific one,** although I’m not sure if he’s doing so intentionally.

Scientists speculate that there was an original composite of materials from which life developed on earth, which they call “primordial soup” and Stenudd calls “primordial mud.”

The metaphor of chaos also draws on deep resonances in human religious traditions, including but not limited to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament as well as many other beliefs in the Ancient Near East. Stenudd recognizes this as well, and he says so in his commentary. For the Hebrews, their God Yahweh was unique in being the only god, and the one who conquered chaos by creating life, beauty, and order from it. For Lao Tzu, the Tao split the chaos and brought forth all of creation, with its natural flow and benevolent way. For the Hebrews, Yahweh was the one who split the chaos and brought life and goodness, even instilling his image in humans to steward and care for this good creation.

There isn’t time to go into an entire history of religions lecture here, but what strikes me most is the parallel nature of some of these insights into the deepest spiritual realities of our universe and the origin of all things — and how there are actually similar parallels with scientific theories including the Big Bang and evolution. Space prohibits me from fully exploring that statement, but I hope that these few thoughts spark at least some appreciation in you, and maybe even a desire to do a deep dive into the topic. At the very least, though, I often find myself caught up in wonder at this deep resonance within the human spirit and understanding of the universe that seems to transcend time, faith, culture, and scientific method.

The flow of the Tao and the hierarchy of the universe

We’re going to switch gears now, just as Lao Tzu does, and look at the second part of the chapter, which talks about a natural hierarchy to the universe and how to follow the flow of Tao within it.

It flows through all things,

inside and outside, and returns

to the origin of all things.

 

The Tao is great.

The universe is great.

Earth is great.

Humanity is great.

These are the four great powers.

 

Humanity follows the earth.

Earth follows the universe.

The universe follows the Tao.

The Tao follows only itself.

—Translator: Stephen Mitchell

The second half of the chapter continues the stream of meditation on the Tao, but then abruptly and awkwardly switches gears to lay out some kind of cosmic hierarchy from humans to earth to the heavens and finally to the Tao. The hierarchy is even more awkward because the original word is not “humans” at all, but the “king.” Lao Tzu speaks to governors and rulers frequently throughout the text, and he indicates he is doing that here by addressing it to the king. For the sake of our purposes, though, I’ll be interpreting it as humanity and not kings and rulers. For me and for a large number of translators, this fits the spirit of the text (or at least its application to the modern day) just as well.

At first glance, these two sections seem to have almost no connection with the first. But I think that if we read them well and do a little bit of interpretive gymnastics, we can find great connection and meaning as we are given another beautiful example of what it means to live by the Tao.

First, the Tao is described in terms we have heard so many times before. It flows through all things, inside and outside, and then returns back to the source or the origin of all things. The unique thing about the language here is that the Tao, in classic non-dualistic fashion, is described always flowing far out and then receding or returning back. This is another of the many times that the Tao is compared to water — the softest and most forgiving substance that flows into the lowest spaces, yet it has a strength to wear down the hardest of rocks. As Alan Watts writes,

In classic Chinese literature the Tao is described as following the path of least resistance, occupying the invisible or lowest position, and embracing the goodness of nature without ever attempting to do so. The Tao is passive but not weak. —Alan Watts, What is Tao?

We instinctively know in our guts that all of life is about flowing out and returning, yet we fight so hard to resist it, to search desperately for any semblance of self-worth and self-preservation and then cling onto them for dear life. Life is about peaks and valleys, but we long for the mountaintop experiences and do everything we can to pretend that they will never go away. But ups and downs, waves and troughs, strikes and gutters are the stuff of life. If we want to “follow” Tao, then perhaps we should learn to ride the waves wherever they may take us rather than drowning in them? We do not need to sacrifice our self, our love of life, or our passions (or at least, not all of them) in order to learn how to “go with the flow.” It grates against every inclination of our culture to talk about simple living like this, but being adaptive and living in flow of the Tao is more in touch with true human nature as it was meant to be.

This is where the hierarchy comes in. Lao Tzu says that there are four “great” powers: Tao, heaven or the universe, earth, and humanity. He splits up the heavens and the earth as most ancient cosmologies do, but he reserves a special place for humanity as well. This shouldn’t be hard to swallow for Christians, who believe that all humans are made in the image of God. His hierarchy can sound a bit strange at first: humans follow the earth, which follows heaven, which follows the Tao, but I don’t think we need to drill down too much into particulars. What I hear in this section is a call to remember that there is a natural order of things. There is a created universe, and it is good. If we find our proper place in it, living in harmony with nature in every sense of the word, then we get closer to the heart of God for humanity. And this is what the Tao te Ching is all about: getting in touch with the True Source and the origin of all things, which finally shows us the connection with the first half of the chapter.

For sake of space, I have to cut this post short. In the podcast episode, I move ahead to cover chapter 26 as part of the journey to hope by way of three qualities: union, contentment, and meaning (also called “deep resonance”). Sadly, there isn’t space to include that section in this article. If you’re interested in the topic but unable to listen to the show, a lot of the content is drawn from my post called Dark clouds, silver linings, and the quest for the meaning of life.

Chapter 26:

The heavy is the root of the light.

The unmoved is the source of all movement.

 

Thus the Master travels all day

without leaving home.

 

However splendid the views,

she stays serenely in herself.

 

Why should the lord of the country

flit about like a fool?

If you let yourself be blown to and fro,

you lose touch with your root.

If you let restlessness move you,

you lose touch with who you are.

—Translator: Stephen Mitchell

 

*You may see tohu wa-bohu or other variants elsewhere. The way I am writing it here reflects the correct pronunciation, whereas tohu wa-bohu reflects the letters used to write it. Two different conventions, same words.

**I am not using biblical and scientific as mutually exclusive or opposing categories like many conservative Christians do. I have no problem accepting that they are both “true.” They are true in very different ways, because they speak to two very different spheres of human knowledge. The biblical creation narrative addresses theology, metaphysics, and the nature of God, humanity, the earth, and the created order. The scientific creation and evolution study analyzes the material/physical process and “literal” way things happened. I have written about this before in my article Why literal “Creationists” literally don’t get the point.

 

Listen to episode eighteen of the podcast below or on the author’s website:

 

 

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 Max Kleinen on Unsplash

 

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