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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This is an adapted version of episode 26 of the podcast, entitled "Tales of Te: Stories of virtue and the lack thereof".
Last week, we set ourselves up for this week by looking at the first four lines of chapter 38. Today, we’ll look at the remaining twelve lines. Last week, we focused on Te, or high virtue, and how it (1) flows forth naturally and effortlessly, (2) feels no need to put itself on display, and in some ways isn’t even aware of itself as virtuous to begin with, and (3) stays centered in the Tao as the world changes in its own natural rhythms.
We saw both the Tao and the Te - or virtue - are wu wei. They act without acting, from a place of spontaneity and effortlessness that is also efficient and effective. Lastly, we talked about how cultivating a wu wei attitude doesn’t mean checking out from the problems of our world, but actually frees us up to engage them in the most healthy and effective way possible.
This week, we’re going to expand on what Lao Tzu calls “low virtue”. One of the core themes of this chapter is the repeating contrasts Lao Tzu uses to differentiate between varying levels of virtue, from the highest to the lowest (which is barely virtuous at all). The first four lines of chapter 38 show that low virtue in general, in total contrast to high virtue, feels both a need to acknowledge itself and a need to act. The next section of the chapter gives us three specific kinds of low virtue: benevolence, justice/righteousness, and etiquette/ritual. Although these words sound positive at first, the Tao te Ching is actually critiquing them, and each one represents a step down the ladder from the high virtue of Te or a step away from the center of the Tao.
(Because this chapter is so complex and lengthy and full of vague words, I took a lot of time to read and compare translations and commentaries and synthesize them into my own version - including a few paraphrased lines to help draw out some of the parallels.)
High Te? No Te! That’s what Te is.
That is to say, the highest virtue is never a display of virtue. That’s what Te is.
Low Te doesn’t lack Te. That’s what Te is not.
That is to say, the lowest Te is always holding onto virtue. That’s what Te is not.
Those highest in Te live in wu wei
Acting without action,
Those lowest in Te only get half of wu wei
They act by taking action,
Always putting forth an effort.
Those highest in benevolence take action and put forth an effort
But without an agenda, so they accomplish what can be accomplished.
Those highest in righteousness also take action and put forth an effort
But with an agenda, so there is always more to be accomplished.
Those highest in etiquette and ritual take action and put forth an effort
And if people don’t respond
They roll up their sleeves and force others to do things their way.
Therefore Lose Tao
And you’ve got Te.
Lose Te and you’ve got benevolence.
And you’ve got righteousness.
Lose righteousness and all you have is etiquette and ritual.
Etiquette and ritual are a thin shell of loyalty and sincerity:
They are the beginning of chaos.
Knowledge and predictions are only flowery embellishments:
They are the beginning of ignorance.
And so the wise person lives
In the thickness of reality,
Not the thin shell of etiquette and ritual
Or the flowers of knowledge and predictions.
The wise person says yes to the former, and no to the latter.
Three forms of low virtue
This chapter gives three examples of low virtue in sort of a descending ladder, with each step lower than the one before it. They are (1) benevolent people, (2) righteous/just people, and (3) people of high etiquette. It’s important to note that none of these categories are necessarily wrong. The point of the chapter is that because they aren’t wu wei, they aren’t ultimate virtue. Rather than acting without action, or acting effortlessly, each one of these categories is primarily described as needing to take action - or, as I paraphrase, to put forth an effort.
In the podcast, I share three stories in detail from my own life to help illustrate each of these points, but I felt it was best to exclude them from this post in order to keep it down to size. I highly recommend you check out this episode if you are curious to hear more about how this has helped me interpret my own story and find signs of each of the three levels of low virtue and how I have seen a long, slow trajectory of growth in my spirituality over the years.
Etiquette and ritual
We’ll start with the final category, which is furthest from Tao and the one Lao Tzu has the most contempt for. This is called etiquette/ritual/piousness. Etiquette and ritual are a “thin shell” of reality, and they are based on having a strong confidence in possessing the right way things are to be done. They are no guarantee of character, because they are only superficial actions. The people of etiquette and ritual sound a lot like the Pharisees we find in the Gospels. They hold scrupulously to the “right way” of doing things and, when people don’t respond, do everything possible to force them into doing it. They are “whitewashed tombs” - dead on the inside, but looking nice on the outside. They are the most likely to be hypocritical.
Righteousness and justice
The next category after etiquette and ritual is people who have righteousness or justice. These words probably have positive connotations for most of us (although I acknowledge they have also been used at times to justify toxic behaviors by toxic people). However, Lao Tzu isn’t praising them.
Like the other three categories, righteous people feel the need to take action, but they do so with an agenda. Since they have an agenda, that means their job is never truly done, because there is always more to do. We might consider this as a subset of benevolence, which is our third and final category. Like benevolence, righteousness acts with a perceived good in mind; but unlike benevolence, it can often lose sight of the humanity of others. It is pursuing the right thing - many times even for the right reasons - but without the element of compassion and empathy. It can easily fall into the trap of placing its own agenda before the wellbeing of everyone involved.
The third and highest category of low virtue is called benevolence. It’s a nice sounding word, and Lao Tzu doesn’t critique it too hard. Benevolence beats righteousness/justice because it acts without an agenda, but it falls short of true Te because it feels compelled to act. It fails to internalize virtue to the point of acting spontaneously, effortlessly, and totally selflessly.
“Low virtue” in the church
Now, let’s look at this from a Christian perspective. First of all, we don’t need to paint low virtue with a negative light. Ritual has its place in Christianity - and it isn’t bad if it’s done with the right intentions. So much of what we do is ritual, no matter how much many Christians like to claim that they are not “religious” and legalistic. And that’s okay. Ritual and spiritual practices shape and form us.
I think it goes without saying that forcing ourselves to take action - both for justice and benevolence - is also extremely important for Christians. Following a crucified savior entails picking up a cross and dying to ourselves, and these are not “effortless” choices in the beginning. They cost a lot. Even Jesus himself wept and sweated blood the night before his crucifixion, and he had to force himself to accept his own cross. It was painful and difficult - not effortless and spontaneous.
When we say that the goal is effortless virtue, this doesn’t mean low virtue is less virtuous. It is only to provide hope that, with time, the more we make the effort to move in the right direction, the more it becomes effortless - like second nature to us. In the podcast, I tell a story about a season in my life where I had to really struggle to develop an attitude of service, selflessness, and submission to my ministry leaders. What once took huge amounts of effort has worked its way into my heart as part of my long trajectory of spiritual growth. Although it can still be difficult at times, these attitudes are slowly becoming more of a default response, or at least a more frequent instinct, than ever before.
The truly virtuous
Act without objective,
And thus have no need to be recognized.
the benevolent are moved by a code of valor,
And so must strive after honor and accolade.
Yet at least they do not impose morality upon others—
Beneath them, the righteous perceive themselves as moral guardians,
And so must strive to control and command.
Yet at least they are concerned with the living—
Beneath them, the holy are only interested in tradition and ritual.
Since no one really cares about any of that,
They must strive to establish their doctrines by force.
Although wu wei and true Te represent spontaneous, unprovoked virtue from a place of genuine, simple authenticity, we don’t get there overnight. We will probably require righteousness to get to benevolence and benevolence to get to virtue. For many people, especially those who grew up in religious environments, etiquette and religion might also be a necessary starting point, even though Lao Tzu doesn’t really have anything good to say about them.
Are there any areas of your life where you see high virtue coming through? If so, then that’s great. That is a sign of Te, which is very often a sign of the Holy Spirit transforming your inner disposition to a more Christlike one.
On the other hand, where are the areas of low virtue in your life? Can you look back and see growth, like I can? Remember, look at the long trajectory of your life, and don’t get too down on yourself for individual moments or even whole seasons where you feel like you fell backwards.
Can you identify any areas that are growing or need growth where you can take some intentional steps to cultivate so that they become more and more effortless? Building a habit takes intentionality and time, and although virtue isn’t the same as a habit, there are some similarities. We cannot force ourselves into high virtue, but we can till the soil of our hearts and our lives to make them places where virtue is more likely to grow.
The Tao te Ching has helped me do that, and it is still the main reason why I read it and why I share what I am learning here. I do hope you’re benefiting from it, and I’d love it if you reach out to me and let me know what you’re learning by contacting me directly. I reply to every email I get. As always, thanks so much for reading. Grace and peace!