About six months 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, please just keep reading a little bit. I promise I’m not a heretic.
Hands down, the best way to get this information is to listen to the podcast, which parallels these posts but goes into a lot more detail. It also includes personal stories, readings from the Tao te Ching itself, and quotes from other TTC readers about how the book has influenced them. Also, each episode releases a few weeks before the corresponding blog post.
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Chapter 1: What’s in a name?
In the podcast I look at two chapters, but for this post I’m just going to look at chapter one.
Part One: Without a name, without a beginning
The first chapter of the Tao te Ching is one of the most difficult and confusing in a whole book, but it’s also a foundation to everything the book has to say about the Tao. In some ways, it’s best to save it for later - or maybe revisit it at the end - but I think it’s important to at least try to understand it first.
Chapter one is filled with mystery and uncertainty, but basically it has two main points:
The Tao, the Way of the universe, is completely beyond human language and comprehension. If we think we understand it, we definitely don’t.
Human desires are what stop us from being able to see the Tao. Now, we’re going to look at what exactly Lao Tzu means by “desires” in the next section, but first let’s take a look at the text.
The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao The name that can be named is not the eternal Name. The unnamable is the eternally real. Naming is the origin of all particular things. Free from desire, you realize the mystery. Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations. Yet mystery and manifestations arise from the same source. This source is called darkness. Darkness within darkness. The gateway to all understanding. (trans. Stephen Mitchell)
Author Oliver Benjamin thinks that as a philosophical text (or as some have inaccurately called it, a religious one) the Tao te Ching might be the most humble book ever written. Basically it says, “What we’re going to talk about can’t really be talked about, because words can’t really describe it.” Or as Ron Hogan translates, “If you can talk about it, it ain’t Tao. If it has a name, it’s just another thing.”
Now, this kind of extreme agnosticism could be taken as very, very contradictory towards some really important Christian beliefs. After all, we can know an awful lot about God by what he has revealed to us in Jesus - who was pretty clear when he said “if you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” We can know the heart of God by looking at Jesus, and Jesus himself is part of the larger story of God and his people.
But let me say something that is going to sound really controversial … I think if I tweeted this it would be some real juicy click bait. Some Christians really need to be a little more agnostic. Now before you go all Spanish Inquisition on me, let me explain:
“The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao, the name that can be named is not the eternal Name” shouldn't sound all that spooky to those who worship a God who gives the mysterious “I am who I am” as his calling card.
First of all, the very name that God gives himself - Yahweh in the Hebrew - is pretty much untranslatable. We don’t really have a perfect idea of what it means, but it has something to do with simply being. “I am who I am,” or “I will be what I will be,” or something like that. But that’s pretty vague, right? Moses says, “What name should I tell the people?” And God just says “tell them I am.” Sound familiar? “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao, the name that can be named is not the eternal Name” shouldn't sound all that spooky to those who worship a God who gives the mysterious “I am” as calling card.
Exhibit B as to why Christians should be a bit more "agnostic" about the nature of God is found in the Gospel of John. John seems to get the mystical side of Christian faith in a way the author New Testament authors don’t. We might even call John the most Taoist author in the Bible (Again, let’s not take this out of context. I’m just making a comparison.)
We’ve already looked at John’s first few verses in the previous post. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” which Chinese Bibles to this day translate as, “In the beginning was the Tao.” These first few verses are better described with words like mysterious and contemplative rather than philosophical or analytical. They’re an echo back to Genesis chapter one - “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” And I’m reminded of Mitchell’s translation, “Darkness with darkness. The gateway to all understanding.”
John really hits on the mystery of God in so many places. Now I think you’ve probably heard the most famous verse in Bible history, John 3:16 - “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” The problem is, we tend to make this “believing” about having all our facts and figures and doctrines figured out straight. But it’s just a few verses before this that John writes, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
I think most of the time, believing in Jesus is a lot more about staying faithful and committed and open to trusting the Spirit of God rather than knowing what the hell we’re actually talking about. Don’t get me wrong: of course I think we should try to know what we’re talking about, but there’s just a whole lot outside of our small vantage points that we can’t really know. And if we think we could ever get it all figured out, then we might just need to stop “trying” to know everything for a little while.
Exhibit C: If you’ve been in the church at all, you’ve probably heard another famous verse, where God says to Isaiah: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Unfortunately, this verse is often quoted irresponsibly and out of context, but it’s worth seriously considering that there’s so much about God that we simply cannot understand. After all, it was Augustine, probably the most famous theologian in all of church history, who said, “If you understand it, it is not God.” Augustine knew even after writing thousands of pages of theological work that we really can’t comprehend God. And this sounds a lot like, “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao, the name that can be named is not the eternal Name. Darkness within darkness. The gateway to all understanding.”
Part two: Without desire
This chapter says we must be “free from desire” to see mystery, but if we have desire, or more accurately, are “caught in it” we can only see what is visible and physical.
But what is desire in the Tao te Ching? If we don’t understand this word, we’re going to fail to understand so much. This topic comes up over and over and over again - the wise person must be free from desire to be effective. We must rid ourselves of desire to be at peace and to be a presence of peace for others.
But “desire” here isn’t just “wanting something.” It goes deeper than that. When we hold onto a desire for anything we don’t have, it holds onto us, and more often than not it causes only suffering and a “turning in on yourself.” In fact, a soul “turned in on itself” is exactly how Martin Luther would describe the word “sin” in the fifteenth century, nearly two thousand years after Lao Tzu.
Lao Tzu isn’t the only one to make this point. Other historical theologians, such as Augustine, found the roots of “sin” to be unchecked or unbalanced desires. We see this as early as Eden - the fruit was “desirable and pleasing to the eye.”
Sure, there are plenty of good desires, but we have to examine ourselves regularly to see what we are desiring and how much weight we are putting on those desires. And one thing that the Tao te Ching does over and over and over again is remind us to be aware of our desires. Even the “good” ones can begin to control us. The more you hold onto a desire of any kind, the more you allow it to have a hold on you. So we must be introspective: what desires have a hold on me, and what are the effects?
Ron Hogan interprets this verse really well,
Stop wanting stuff;
it keeps you from seeing what’s real.
When you want stuff,
all you see are things.
I don’t want to just see things. I want to see what is real. And what is really real is mystery, and it’s beyond anything I could ever grasp or imagine if I’m focused on all the “things” of life.
The Tao te Ching calls us to be empty over and over again. But it’s not an emptiness that is totally disconnected from everything in the world. It is detached - in a sense - but not in an unhealthy way. It’s more like holding everything that comes your way with open hands rather than clenching your firsts to hold onto what's yours. This doesn’t mean there’s no spirit, no fight, no drive within you, but it means that your fire comes from a bed of well-tended coals rather than dumping gasoline on any and every spark of passion.
As always, in the TTC we are asked to hold onto paradox. What does it mean to recognize that desires are a two-edged sword, that “striving” for things often backfires, and that sometimes the unknowable mystery is all we can really know about certain issues? How do we hold these truths without drifting off into apathy, laziness, or total agnosticism?
This post is only an introduction to some of the paradoxes that will come up over and over again as we dive deeper into some of the more "practical" chapters of the Tao te Ching. This post follows episode 2 of the podcast, in which I cover all of today's material but also unpack chapter four, which has some very interesting connections with chapter one. Be sure to check it out!
God is unnamable. Naming God is the beginning of religion. Let go, and you find God. Hold on, and you get theology. Knowing God and not knowing God are ultimately the same. Their source is Unknowing. In the beginning darkness was on the face of the Deep. Know this and you know all. Davis, Marshall. The Tao of Christ, 1