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 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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Today we’re going to look at two chapters. Chapter 18 talks about four consequences of a society that is breaking down. It’s surprising and ironic because these four things sound like positive aspects of society. But for Lao Tzu, systems and codes of charity and “righteousness” are actually signs of a loss of touch with our true nature. When families and nations break down, it is only then that we have to develop our ethics, which don’t really target the issues in our hearts and souls.
Chapter 19 makes it personal by calling us to give up some of these outward systems - “religion,” holiness codes, and the pursuit of wealth and success - and return to the source and ground of our being.
These are both exciting chapters because they are so intentionally controversial sounding; but Lao Tzu is not a nihilist. Instead, he is making the point that the truly good and pure and holy things in this world have to flow forth from a heart that is rightly ordered, rather than being imposed on it.
The cancer beneath a white-washed society
In chapter 18, we are given a sweeping picture of what it looks like when a society loses sight of the things that really matter. As people and cultures become less connected to their true nature, the image of God, or the simplicity of the Tao, then all kinds of systems arise to try to regulate good conduct and preserve the morality of the society.
Basically, if we have the ears to hear it, we will see that Lao Tzu is making a powerful point: there is a fundamental deficiency with all ethical constructs. To put it more simply: the systems of morality, intellectualism, so-called family values and political correctness, and patriotism are actually just band-aids that fail to address the underlying issue. They may be good and useful in a broken world, but they are not the ultimate good.
Because the translations vary so much in their terminology, it was difficult to pick just one or even two, but here are the ones I settled on. Pay attention to the four warnings or societal critiques, which we will then unpack one by one.
When the great Tao is abandoned,
charity and righteousness appear.
When intellectualism arises,
hypocrisy is close behind.
When there is strife in the family unit,
people talk about ‘brotherly love’.
When the country falls into chaos,
politicians talk about ‘patriotism’.
-Translator: J.H. McDonald
When people lose touch with Tao,
they start talking about
“righteousness” and “sanctity.”
When people forget what’s true,
they start talking about
When people have no respect
for one another,
they start talking about
and “family values.”
When the nation is unstable,
people start talking about “patriotism.”
-Translator: Ron Hogan
The first warning lays the foundation: societal and communal problems arise when we lose touch with Tao. The Tao is, among other things, the fundamental being and way of the universe, our true nature, and the way things were meant to be. When it is forgotten or abandoned, something else that seems good (and to an extent, is good) arises; but it isn’t good in and of itself without a more fundamental connection with the grand scheme of things. Various translations call this “something else” kindness, morality, charity, righteousness, sanctity, or even religion.
The idea here is not that these things are bad. Instead, these positive qualities and things like them are to be expected of people who are in touch with the fundamental reality - by which I mean both God and the image of God in which humans are created. But the fact that we have to name and define - and therefore, control and regulate - things like righteousness and morality means that something is wrong. Something is broken.
To put it differently, it’s not that these things don’t exist until people abandon God - it’s that the very idea of kindness, morality, and religion is symptomatic of a disconnection from the divine. I think back to the parable-like story of the original fall of humanity, in which the great temptation wasn’t for lust, power, and violence, but simply the “knowledge of good and evil.” It was only after that knowledge came that any of those words - kindness, morality, religion, etc. - actually had any meaning.
So much of “religion” is about naming, defining, prescribing, and regulating the ideas of sanctity and righteousness. I’m not only talking about the obviously legalistic examples that are easy to name as dysfunctional. There are subtler ways in which this kind of religion of denial manifests itself (because that is what it is, purely denying the bad things). Purity for purity’s sake isn’t really a benefit to anyone, least of all ourselves, but it’s easier to define and regulate things rather than to pursue connection. I believe this is why Marshall Davis translates these first two lines this way:
When God is forgotten,
morality and religion appear.
-Translator: Marshall Davis
The second two lines talk about the danger of intelligence or intellectualism. Gia-fu Feng writes, “When wisdom and intelligence are born, the great pretense begins.” Although his translation says “wisdom,” this isn’t the positive, holistic kind of wisdom; it’s the search for so-called “wisdom” that is purely an accumulation of knowledge. This is why another translation, ironically, translates the same line as “when wisdom declines.” Other translations mention intelligence or knowledge, but they’re all getting at the same thing. As an academic, I have seen the best and the worst that can come from intellectualism - and the worst always comes when we forget what is really true and forsake it for knowledge in and of itself.
When we do this, the Tao te Ching says that the result is only hypocrisy. Gia-fu Feng calls it “the great pretense,” but all of the other translations have something to do with this idea of hypocrisy. Any academic can tell you that figuring out the “right answer” to theology or ethics or social justice or anything else on paper doesn’t necessarily mean we are actually living our ideas. In fact, many times we’re just living in our ideas, rather than living them out.
The third stanza gets a bit more personal. Various translations say that when there is no peace in the family, or there is strife in the family unit, or there is no love in the home, then that is when people talk about family devotion, or “brotherly love,” or even one of evangelicalism’s favorite catch-phrases: “family values.” Once again, these are symptoms of brokenness.
The fourth and final stanza is the most directly political. The literal translation is something along the lines of, “When a country is confused or in chaos, then loyal governors or ministers will arise,” but that doesn’t quite capture the heart of what Lao Tzu is saying here, which is why it’s helpful to compare other translations. They say that when the country is in chaos, the nation is unstable, or the culture is in decay, then that is when politicians - or the people - start talking about “patriotism” or even “nationalism.”
We don’t need to be called and expected to show our loyalty and duty to our country unless something is fundamentally unstable at the very foundation of it; and ultimately, all human nations and Empires are built on an unstable foundation of power, control, hierarchy, and violence.
There is nothing “natural” about nation states and governments - and the more threatened they are from within or without, the more unstable they become. And the more unstable they become, the more they begin to call forth loyalty and the unhealthy kind of patriotism and start talking about things like “doing your service,” “fulfilling your duty” to the nation, or a million other ways of “defending” the house of cards that we are pretending is the Tower of Babel.
It’s important to note that this chapter is a diagnosis, not a prescription. In order to get one, we only have to turn the page to chapter nineteen.
Give it all up!
Where chapter eighteen told us about the problems that arise when we get out of sync with the true nature of things, nineteen targets some of those problems and gives sort of a plan of action for how to get back in touch with fundamental reality.
Give up sainthood, renounce wisdom,
And it will be a hundred times better for everyone.
Give up kindness, renounce morality,
And men will rediscover filial piety and love.
Give up ingenuity, renounce profit,
And bandits and thieves will disappear.
These three are outward forms alone; they are not sufficient in themselves.
It is more important
To see the simplicity,
To realize one’s true nature,
To cast off selfishness
And temper desire.
-Translator: Gia-fu Feng
Feng’s literal translation sounds a bit extreme. Who would say that sainthood, wisdom, morality, ingenuity, and profit are evils? Certainly they are not, but the problem is when we think these outer things can regulate the inner things, rather than letting them flow naturally from a rightly oriented inner soul. I really like Marshall Davis’ translation here, because he hits on the fact that changing the outward realities isn’t really practical, whereas changing our hearts, minds, and souls is totally possible. He writes,
If there were no religion,
people would be more spiritual.
If there were no laws,
people would be more moral.
If there were no wealth,
there would be no greed or theft.
Getting rid of these three is not practical.
So try these three practices instead:
Hold fast to what is eternal.
Live simply with purity.
Weaken your attachment to the self and its desires.
-Translator: Marshall Davis
Davis draws out the parallel nature of this chapter extremely well. His translation makes it clear that the first three warnings are countered by three internal practices or attitudes. So let’s break this down into its three sections and compare each of them with the three concluding statements that correspond to them.
First, we need to get rid of what the various translations call sainthood, wisdom, holiness, knowledge, or as Davis put it, “religion.” Now some of these words are going to be problematic for Christian readers. Some of us would be able to get on board with getting rid of “religion” if we’re talking about lifeless, dead, sterile head knowledge paired with religiosity done purely out of obligation or even prejudice. But holiness and knowledge? Asking people to give those up will probably raise some eyebrows.
The issue with these things isn’t that they are bad, but that they are just not simple enough. They tend to be mental constructs and boxes that substitute for real connection with the ground of our being, the Tao, or what we’ve been calling God’s ultimate design and intention for the universe and for humanity.
This is why the first of the three practices or mindset-shifts is to “hold fast to what is eternal.” Other translations say to see the simplicity and embrace it, or simply to “realize our true nature.” Our “true nature” is not a fluffy abstraction here. We are made in the image and likeness of God, and God’s purpose in Jesus was to restore and revitalize that true nature within us as broken humans.
The second warning is also a surprising one. Lao Tzu tells us to give up what different translations call kindness, or morality, or justice, or charity, or righteousness. Again, this is a long list of good things, so we can’t just take that line out of context. We have to read it for what he is really trying to say. We have to get the first things first, and if we get them right, the rest will flow naturally instead of being forced and regulated. When we do this, the different translations of chapter 19 says that people will be “more moral” or that they will “do the right thing” or, most beautifully, that they will “return to brotherly love.”
The third problem to be addressed is the easiest one to preach because it most obviously resembles the direct words of Jesus. Lao Tzu says we must give up wealth, or profit, or industry - and that in doing this, we get rid of theft and greed altogether. As with the others, though, it is possible to fix the external without really changing the internal. So in the very last line, we are given the internal disposition to match this external problem: weaken your attachment to self and to desire.
It’s worth a reminder that whatever we hold on to also has a hold on us. Our desires naturally tend to be disordered and self-destructive, so we have to be very careful in keeping them in check and even reorienting them completely. We often forget that this was at the very heart of the teachings of Jesus, but it’s also central to the Tao te Ching. The TTC helps give me new perspective on my desires, shining a light into my blind spots and helping me confront the disordered parts of my false self.
Sometimes, the more I talk about it, the more things start to become muddy and complicated and overly philosophical. When my mind feels like it’s spiraling out of control on these huge, sometimes confusing topics, I try to remember how Stephen Mitchell puts these final lines:
If these three aren’t enough,
just stay at the center of the circle
and let all things take their course.
-Translator: Stephen Mitchell