A Christian Reads the Tao te Ching: Series Introduction

Fame or integrity: which is more important? Money or happiness: which is more valuable? Success or failure: which is more destructive? If you look to others for fulfillment, you will never truly be fulfilled. If your happiness depends on money, you will never be happy with yourself. Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you. -TTC, chapter 44

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.

So please check out the podcast - and don't forget to subscribe and share. Our world is so over-saturated with content that it's incredibly difficult to get the message out when you are starting from scratch. Leaving a review on Apple podcasts and sharing the show is the best thing you can do to help support me. If you love the content, please consider becoming part of the community by supporting CRTTC on Patreon.

It’s a common misunderstanding that the TTC is a “religious book” or a form of “scripture,” but it was never meant to be taken that way. It is simply a set of musings and meditations on the way the world works and what it means to be a wise person. True, “Taoism” did later arise as a religion, but this was not in the mind of the original author, Lao Tzu.

This first post lays the groundwork for the whole series, and it’s a very abbreviated version of the first episode of the podcast. I think there are three major questions to address before we get started working through the actual text of the TTC.

  1. What is the Tao te Ching and what is it about?

  2. How could a Christian possibly read the Tao te Ching for spiritual formation?

  3. Can we actually “translate” some of the Taoist terms and import them into a Christian framework? (Spoiler alert: I think the answer is unquestionably yes)

The gentlest thing in the world overcomes the hardest thing in the world. Teaching without words, performing without actions: that is the Master’s way. --Tao te Ching, chapter 43

1. What is the Tao te Ching, and what does it talk about?

The TTC is a tiny little book of poetic verses about spirituality and the nature of the universe. It was written by Lao Tzu in China sometime in the fourth century BC. It has 81 chapters, but they are all less than a page long (with short poetic lines). In fact, you can read the whole thing in about 40 minutes.

Even though it is so short, it is incredibly difficult to translate. This style of ancient Chinese poetry is loaded with meanings and allusions and symbolism that it can be interpreted in so many different ways. I use 10 different translations along with 3 paraphrases when I make notes for these posts/podcasts, and each one brings out different nuances. (You can see a list of all the resources and translations I use here)

Although this is a massive oversimplification, we could say that the TTC basically talks about two things:

  1. The mysterious nature of the universe and the fact that we could never have it all figured out. According to the TTC, there’s sort of a natural order of things that’s like a river, and it’s not always pretty and perfect, but we have to learn to accept the way certain things are work within that context rather than always swimming upstream. In fact, one phrase that might sum up the whole TTC is “go with the flow.”

  2. How to step back from our own desires, our grasping for success, our own selves, in order to become truly self-less and a blessing to the whole world. By being present to the current moment, and the way things actually are, we can be what my counseling professor called “a presence of peace.” This is the way great things actually happen.

I think Jesus would definitely be on board with all of that! It’s true, Jesus did swim upstream in a lot of ways. He showed his world a different way of loving and living. But he knew what things to fight against and what things not to, and he always knew the right time to swim upstream. Still, he emptied himself of everything and took on a real human body, uniting God and humankind once again. For me, that is just an example of God “jumping into the river” to be with us.

The biggest tree began as a sapling. A huge building is made of small bricks. A journey of three thousand miles begins with a single step. If you try too hard, you will fail. If you hold something too tight, you will drop it. The godly person lets things unfold at their own pace. He holds things lightly, and does not lose them. He is not concerned with success, and therefore succeeds. He consider nothing to be his own, and therefore has nothing to lose. The wise man desires to be free from desire. He learns in order to unlearn. He values what others ignore. -TTC, chapter 64 (translator: Marshall Davis, "The Tao of Christ")

2: How could a Christian possibly read the Tao te Ching for spiritual formation?

The TTC doesn’t propose to be a religious scripture/book in the way that the Qur’an, the Bible, or the Hindu Vedas do. It’s just a book of wisdom, and indeed it uses spiritual language, but the language is vague enough that (in most cases) I see little contradiction with Christian beliefs. It’s true, some people have turned the TTC into its own religious text, and they built a religion around it. But this was never Lao Tzu’s intent, and so I have no problem learning from it. And in the cases where I have to disagree and ignore some sections, I have no problem doing so.

I’ve heard so many Christians say that all truth is God’s truth. If that’s true, and if so many of the core truths and principles in the TTC line up with the heart of the teachings of Jesus, is reading and learning from it a problem?

The simple fact is that the Bible does not address every issue that we face in our daily lives. And we would never in a million years admit it, but if we’re really honest, there are a whole lot of sources we use to help fill in the edges around how to live faithfully as a Jesus-follower. We look to famous Christian authors, blogs, and YouTube videos - and of course to our own pastors as they preach - in an attempt to apply Scripture to our daily lives. In a way (broadly speaking) these become a kind of “scripture” for us. We don’t give them unquestionable authority, but if you look at our daily lives, we live by them and we often “preach” them to our friends and family.

Most of us also listen to plenty of voices outside the Christian tradition to help us live more healthy, whole, integrated, loving lives. Do we consider every self-help book or video to be suspicious simply and only because it isn’t explicitly “Christian?” (Some of us might, but I think that’s a bit silly.)

If we can do all this, then why can’t we listen to an ancient text that is also outside the Christian tradition? The Tao te Ching is a beautiful book that lines up with Christian values in so many ways. Just because it came four centuries before Jesus, and just because some people have made it religious in a way it wasn't intended to. be used, doesn’t invalidate it for us.

The sage acts without struggle or coercion, And teaches by example Rather than by rote or rule. Things come - and he welcomes them Things go - and he wishes them well He helps with no expectation of gain Works with no expectation of reward Performs with no anticipation of results Gets the job done - but takes no credit. Since he takes nothing from the World The World takes nothing from him And his impact upon the world long endures. -TTC, Chapter 2

3: Analogous terms - The Tao as the Way/Word of God

So is there really a way we can take some of the most important words of the Tao te Ching and apply them to Jesus followers? I think there is, and so do a number of Christian authors, but there are some challenges. Some people might be ready to accuse me of syncretism here - that is, blending two religions together. But once again, “Taoism” was never originally meant to be a religion.

The challenge is how to apply these terms in ways that are faithful to both Christian beliefs and the Tao te Ching, without abusing either to make it say what we want it to.

Let’s start with the word Tao. Tao is really tough to translate. The most common is to call it the “way,” but it could also be read as “road” or “path.” Here's one way it is described:

The Tao of Heaven is eternal,

and the earth is long enduring.

Why are they long enduring?

They do not live for themselves;

thus they are present for all beings.

The wise person puts herself last;

And finds herself in the place of authority.

She detaches herself from all things;

Therefore she is united with all things.

She gives no thought to self.

She is perfectly fulfilled.

-McDonald, 7

Maybe the closest we can get is to say that “Tao” is the natural order of things, the “flow of the universe,” the way things are supposed to be. It isn’t “God,” in the way monotheistic religions would think of, but I think that we can often view it as analogous to the mind and heart of God.

What? How could you say that a non-Christian philosophical term like “Tao” can describe God? Well, to be honest, it’s not all that unusual. The first verse of the Gospel of John says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Most of us are probably familiar with this.

But did you know that the “Word” - the Greek word logos - doesn’t just simply mean “word?” It does, but it was also used by Greek philosophers a lot. When they said logos, they were talking about the divine reason, the order, the logic, the plan of the universe that gives it form and meaning. It was not a term for a person, but for a metaphysical concept.

When John chose to say in the beginning was the logos, he knew what he was doing. He was using something people already knew and relating it to Jesus. But he was also doing something radically new, kind of improvising on the idea of logos as most people knew it: he was making the logos a person. The Christ was the divine order, logic, reason, the “flow of the universe,” the driving creating principal. I think that, like John, we can take the Taoist philosophy of Lao Tzu and "improvise" on it to deeply enrich our spiritual lives.

And if we stop to consider the two terms - logos and Tao, they actually aren’t all that far apart, even though Chinese and Greek philosophers are radically different in the way they apply these principles.

I’m not the first to suggest that using Tao to relate to Jesus is a good idea. In the earliest (and still the most popular) Chinese translation of the New Testament, the word Tao is used for the eternal Christ before his incarnation as Jesus of Nazareth. The first verse of the Gospel of John is translated, “In the beginning was the Tao, and the Tao was with God, and the Tao was God.” (John 1:1)

With all that said, when I read the TTC I am not looking to build new doctrine or theology. The only real “theology” that we find in the TTC is a sense of mystery, a reminder that we really can’t know everything, especially not about God. The way that this mystery spills over into “Teh,” or virtue and wise-living, only prompts us to circle back around and reconsider things that we’ve already heard Jesus say: humility, selflessness, emptying ourselves, non-violence, loving our enemies, presence, patience, peace.

In the podcast, I go into much more detail on “Teh” as well as the recurring “character” of the wise person/sage/master. I believe that both of these can easily be translated into Christian theology, but in order to keep this post succinct (and tease you to listen), I will stop here.

Grace and peace!

©2019 by Corey Farr.