Some time ago, I discovered the Tao te Ching, an ancient book of Chinese wisdom and spirituality that has dramatically influenced my spiritual formation. 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 A Christian Reads the Tao te Ching podcast, which parallels these posts but goes into a 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.
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In chapter 39, we are introduced to a topic we haven't seen up until this point: ecology. According to the Tao te Ching, all things on earth originally existed, and should continue to exist, in a mutually beneficial harmony.
These words were written more than two thousand years before the Industrial Revolution of the late 1700s and early 1800s. Lao Tzu had no way of conceiving of the massive potential for environmental manipulation and destruction that humanity would one day achieve. He had no framework for even considering things like global warming or even pollution in the modern sense of the word.
Still, long before humans began ravaging the environment on a mass scale, Lao Tzu was writing about the importance of maintaining harmony with nature and the devastating effects of losing that harmony by losing touch with Tao. The interpretations I’m using today take a little bit of interpretive license by phrasing the words in ways that resonate with environmentalist issues today, but I think that this is true to the spirit of the text, and I think it is probably the way Lao Tzu would phrase it today.
In harmony with the Tao,
the sky is clear and spacious,
the earth is solid and full,
all creature flourish together,
content with the way they are,
endlessly repeating themselves,
When humanity interferes with the Tao,
the sky becomes filthy,
the earth becomes depleted,
the equilibrium crumbles,
creatures become extinct.
The great view the small as their source,
and the high takes the low as their foundation.
Their greatest asset becomes their humility.
They speak of themselves as orphans and widows,
thus they truly seek humility.
Do not shine like the precious gem,
but be as dull as a common stone.
-Translators: Stephen Mitchell and J.H. McDonald
The world is aging, and it’s not aging well. Humanity has spent the last few centuries perfecting ways to harness and take advantage of nature for the sake of technological development at the cost of depleting our natural resources. In recent history, we have slowly been uncovering the truth that the Tao te Ching revealed thousands of years ago: things on our planet are much more connected than they first appear. Changes to ecosystems, the climate, and the survival of many species are all literally and scientifically interconnected in ways that Lao Tzu could never have proven, but instinctively knew. The more we rape and pillage the planet, the more we tighten the noose around our own necks.
The first stanza of this chapter describes the way the created universe was intended to function. I really like David Jones’ translation, which says:
In harmony with The Way,
The sky is clear,
Water is clean,
Nothing is wasted.
Humanity and nature flourish together,
Content in The Natural Way.
-Translator: David Jones
Keep in mind here that Jones is a Christian translator, so when he says The Way, he is comparing Tao to the way of Christ, or the way God intends for original humanity (and restored humanity) to operate. But what does it even mean for humanity and nature to flourish together in the modern world? Our experience of life looks far more like the second paragraph, which says:
When out of harmony with The Way,
Sky is polluted,
Water makes you ill,
Earth is harmed,
Nature and humanity are at odd,
-Translator: David Jones
We’re now reaping the consequences of about 250 years of rapidly escalating development, although most scientists are saying these are just the birth pangs - to use some language from the apostle Paul - before the real chaos starts. It’s hard to pin things down on one event, but I think it’s fair to say that the Industrial Revolution was a massive turning point in ecological history.
Neither the Tao te Ching nor the Bible gives us a specific action plan for how to deal with environmental issues. Rather than going into specifics, then, I want to look at how our relationship to the environment impacts us on a spiritual level. I realize that is a confusing sentence at first, and it might sound like I am talking about praying to mother earth or Gaia or worshiping nature. That’s not where I’m going with this, though. Instead, I resonate with what Taoist monk Arthur Rosenfeld said in an article for HuffPost a few years ago:
Because environmental awareness and Taoism go hand in hand, I frequently conflate destruction of our environment with trends in the way we express ourselves spiritually, or fail to do so. These trends include a culture of consumption, a growing sense of entitlement, an exaggerated notion of our own importance, valuing the pleasures of the individual above the good of the community, and the religious belief that our species enjoys holy dispensation to do with the world as it wishes.
-Arthur Rosenfeld, HuffPost
That last statement represents a huge problem. Many Christians have taken the verse from the first chapter of Genesis totally out of context, where it says that we are to have “dominion over the earth”. They have used it to justify our freedom, even our mandate, to take advantage of the earth’s resources and use them however we see fit, regardless of the environmental consequences.
Today, I want to talk about what the Bible has to say about the environment, both directly and indirectly, and what it means for us to choose to ignore it and live out of harmony with the physical world. In fact, I’m going to focus on the Bible more than in other episodes today, because I really want to demonstrate for both my Christian and my non-Christian listeners that, contrary to what many people believe, Lao Tzu’s vision of environmental harmony and care is not in contradiction with the vision of the world that we find in the Bible.
The Bible and the environment
So many read the first few chapters of the book of Genesis and focus on the role of humans or the nature of creation. They treat it like a science book. How often do we stop and read this passage from the very first chapter of the Bible and consider God’s good care for his creation?
Then God blessed [Adam and Eve] and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.”
Then God said, “Look! I have given you every seed-bearing plant throughout the earth and all the fruit trees for your food. And I have given every green plant as food for all the wild animals, the birds in the sky, and the small animals that scurry along the ground—everything that has life.” And that is what happened.
Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good!
When the prophet Isaiah talks about God’s good plans to restore all of creation, he focuses on the harmony that will take place in the animal kingdom:
In that day the wolf and the lamb will live together;
the leopard will lie down with the baby goat.
The calf and the yearling will be safe with the lion,
and a little child will lead them all.
The cow will graze near the bear.
The cub and the calf will lie down together.
The lion will eat hay like a cow.
The baby will play safely near the hole of a cobra.
Yes, a little child will put its hand in a nest of deadly snakes without harm.
Nothing will hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,
for as the waters fill the sea,
so the earth will be filled with people who know the Lord. (Isaiah 11:6-9)
There are many other verses that fit this theme, but I find it interesting that it appears both the very first and the very last chapter of the Bible. In the picture of creation finally restored at the very end of the Bible, we have these words about the metaphorical “new city” of Jerusalem:
Then the angel showed me a river with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. It flowed down the center of the main street. On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month. The leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations.
No longer will there be a curse upon anything. For the throne of God and of the Lamb will be there, and his servants will worship him. And they will see his face, and his name will be written on their foreheads. And there will be no night there—no need for lamps or sun—for the Lord God will shine on them. And they will reign forever and ever. (Revelation 22:1-5)
All of these passages should show us just how important harmony in the natural world is to God. Instead, though, many Christians have taken that one verse about having dominion over the earth and turned it into a license for environmental destruction to further our own ends. We might not put it that way, but that is often what it looks like in practice. In reality, though, this was a commission to care for the earth, as benevolent kings and queens. CS Lewis understood this when he wrote about the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve in Narnia.
Our stance on environmental issues isn’t just about “fixing the problem” by taking the right action steps. It’s about cultivating spiritual virtue. If we refuse to take the environment into serious consideration, then we are stunting an important part of our spirituality and blocking off a channel of virtue development in ourselves. But if we do take it seriously, then the right actions will naturally flow forth from us.
Cultivating spiritual/environmental virtue
So what does this look like? In his book For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care, Steven Bouma-Prediger lays out what he calls “ecological virtues”. By looking at theological themes, he gives a list of virtues we must seek to develop with regards to creation along with a parallel list of vices. Like in classical Greek ethics, he gives two vices for each virtue: the first represents a total deficiency of that good characteristic, and the second represents an excessive amount of it.
First, Bouma-Prediger looks at Genesis chapters 1-4 - from the creation story to the preservation of species on the ark. However we interpret these stories historically, he says that theologically they teach us that creation has a diversity of creatures and that this is a very good thing. This is part of the integrity of creation. It has intrinsic value, because God has declared it good; it doesn’t just have instrumental value for us to use without regard. The virtues here are respect and receptivity. We must respect the existence of other creatures and recognize that we are mutually interdependent, that our ecosystems work together.
Not having respect leads to the vice of conceit - thinking that we are all that really matters, and therefore ignoring other creatures. Having too much respect leads to the vice of reverence, or worship of the creation itself.
Not understanding receptivity when it comes to the rest of creation leads to the vice of total autonomy - acting like we don’t need anyone else, that we can simply handle ourselves. On the other hand, cultivating receptivity too much can lead to addiction or total dependence on other people or even our own ideologies.
The next section of the book cites some Scriptures in support of what is really just an obvious point: natural resources are finite. Bouma-Prediger sees the story of God providing food in the wilderness as an example of cultivating self-restraint. Although food was provided every day, the Israelites were commanded to take only enough for that day. Any extra bread they took would rot overnight, to remind them of their need to depend on God’s provision. This is actually the likely source of that line in the Lord’s Prayer, where Jesus taught his followers to ask simply for “our daily bread” - no more, no less.
Recognizing the limited resources of creation helps us become more responsible by showing restraint, moderating our desires for consumption. It also cultivates the virtue of frugality, using things efficiently in order to best enjoy the world without creating too much waste. The point of both of these virtues is enjoyment of the good creation. Not having them is obviously a vice that leads to overconsumption, unrestrained desire, and greed. However, having too much self-restraint and frugality can lead to masochism (making ourselves suffer because we become convinced even having desires is wrong) or stinginess (becoming so obsessively frugal that we actually end up living in fear).
In some of his most beautiful sections, Bouma-Prediger talks about how taking our responsibility to care for the earth seriously cultivates wisdom, benevolence, and love in us when we act to preserve the environment, the diversity of species, and the flourishing of not only humanity, but the planet as a whole.
Lastly, he sees all of this as even cultivating the virtue of hope. When we combine our responsibility to care for the earth with God’s own good intention and care for the earth, along with the visions of total renewal that we find throughout the Bible, then we will find ourselves filled with hope.
Lacking this hope, we find ourselves in the vice of despair - believing nothing good can ever happen. Having an overabundance it becomes false hope, which leads us to become presumptuous, internalizing the belief that everything is going to end up perfect so much that we think what we do doesn’t really matter. Ironically, both of these vices, both despair and presumption, usually lead to us doing nothing at all when it comes to caring responsibly for the environment.
A utopian vision: naive or essential?
In his article at HuffPost, Arthur Rosenfeld also wrote,
The Three Treasures of Taoism are compassion, frugality, and humility. I recognize that living according to the Three Treasures, treating each other with respect and compassion, and cherishing all living things as cradles of cosmic consciousness sounds naively utopian. Even so, I agree with the famous critic, Irving Howe, who is reported to have quipped “utopianism is a necessity of the moral imagination.” If this Taoist utopia seems overly simplistic, I’m okay with that. Simplicity, it turns out, seems to be an important component of spiritual growth in every tradition.
God understands this. Humans don’t. In Leviticus 25, God’s core commandments for the structure of society included two often ignored things: the Sabbath year and the year of Jubilee. Just like the Israelites were meant to stop and rest every seven days for the Sabbath, they were also supposed to allow the land to rest every seven years. In the sixth year, they were to store up double, which God promised to provide, so that the land would rest. Interestingly, this is a very good ecological practice, although they were probably unaware of the full ramifications of that.
On a grander scale, every fiftieth year - that is, the year after every seven Sabbath years - they were commanded not only to rest the land, but to restore society to its natural order. All debts were to be forgiven, indentured servants paying off debts they couldn’t afford were to be released, and land that had been purchased by foreclosure from indebted families was to be returned to them. It was like a great big reset button on the social order.
Sadly, we have little to no evidence that the Israelites ever successfully observed the year of Jubilee to the extent described here. They came up with all kinds of clever schemes and contracts to get around the debt cancellation and land release. Still, God had set this utopian vision before them, and the failure came from them, not from the vision itself.
Similarly, modern humanity has failed to adhere to God’s vision to care for the earth. And we are failing more and more every year. It’s important to cultivate a Taoist outlook, to learn non-attachment and going with the flow. It’s important to take stock of the full scope of what the Christian tradition proudly offers us about caring for the earth - though it has often been ignored. It’s important to maintain hope as part of a holistic spirituality, even when it seems utopian and naive. But to that end, it’s also important to become aware of just how serious the problem is. The problem is serious, and it is up to us to hold all of this in balance as we strive to find a better way forward.
It is up to us - all of us - to discern together what that looks like.