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.
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Chapter 21 of the Tao te Ching is very mysterious, metaphorical, and contemplative. The basic idea is the all-encompassing nature of the Tao, which is simultaneously dark, inscrutable, and undefinable in and of itself and yet also is the source of all things, ideas, images, and life itself.
The contrast between chapters 20 and 21 is stark. Lao Tzu goes from being intensely personal and down-to-earth in 20 to a meditation on the massive, cosmic scope of the Tao in 21. I believe, however, that we can connect them if we recognize that the transition between the two hinges on the first couple lines of this chapter: “the greatest virtue is in following Tao.” It’s like he looks back at himself in chapter 20, which we looked at last week and which demonstrates a number of qualities that a person of virtue has, and then he connects it to this grand vision of the cosmic Tao that situates the whole thing in the bigger picture. This is another example of the constant interplay between Tao and Te - the mystery and the manifestations, the source and the power, or the way and the word. It evokes the connection between the total transcendence of God and our ability to live virtuously by becoming connected to and filled with the divine spirit.
The greatest Virtue is to follow Tao and Tao alone.
The Tao is elusive and intangible.
Oh, it is intangible and elusive, and yet within is image.
Oh, it is elusive and intangible, and yet within is form.
Oh, it is dim and dark, and yet within is essence.
This essence is very real, and therein lies faith.
From the very beginning until now its name has never been forgotten.
Thus I perceive the creation.
How do I know the ways of creation?
Because of this.
-Translator: Gia-fu Feng
The source of all things
This chapter is a lot like chapter one, which said the Tao that can be named and described and spoken about is not the true and eternal Tao. We can’t wrap our minds around Tao, which is why this chapter says it is “elusive and intangible, dim and dark” or in other translations: vague, hazy, blurred, shadowy, and even nebulous. We can’t define it or categorize it with words, we can’t fit it into our brains. As always, it’s a good reminder for those of us living under the illusion that we can ever truly comprehend the divine. Many people (including my former self) think that if we can just read the Bible enough and interpret it correctly, we can fully understand God.
Yet despite its inscrutability and enormous mystery, the Tao is the source of everything. Within it lies “image, form, and essence.” Most translations use these words or something similar, but I prefer not to use them here for two reasons: first of all, they are kind of confusing words to translate what should be a fairly simple concept, linguistically speaking. (The philosophical side is profoundly deep, but the language need not be.) Secondly, these three words are very important in Greek philosophy; so if you have any background in philosophy at all, you may find yourself getting caught up into imposing a totally foreign system onto Lao Tzu’s words. We can and should bring the TTC into dialogue with our faith and philosophy, but we can get off track if we wrongly understand Lao Tzu was using words in the same way we use them.
I didn’t find anything really satisfactory that was both literal and free of this trap among my English translations, but I found exactly what I wanted in a German translation, which says that the Tao is chaotisch und dunkel (chaotic and dark) but within it are Bilde, Dinge, und Same - pictures, things, and seed. The Tao has pictures and things (or image and form) in that not only the ideas for all things but the very things themselves are within it. But it is the last word that makes this version so brilliant to me; rather than “essence,” the German version says that within the Tao is “seed.” This captures the vitality of the Tao, that not only creates but makes continued creation possible. If it weren’t for this essence or seed, then no world would have existed. As Stefan Snudd says, in words that remind me of some theologians, “Tao would only have been an eternal possibility, resting in its own perfection.”
In this sense, the creative essence or seed of the Tao is similar to God’s “let there be light” in the first few verses of the Bible. It is the ground of all being. For example, we can’t really say the Universe (or the Tao) is big, because the Universe is everything. We can only say we are big or small in comparison to other things, or to the universe itself. But the idea of “seed” could suggest that we imagine the whole thing is a gigantic organism of sorts. What if we view ourselves as part of this organism? Then, big and small begin to lose their meaning, because we no longer see ourselves as separate entities.
This is not to say we lose our self-ness, only our fiercely independent and often prideful, ego-centric separate-ness. In other words, I’m not suggesting pantheism (that all things = God) when I say we are part of a much bigger organism, but just an inherent connectedness of all things that I think is both biblically, philosophically, and scientifically satisfying. We, like Lao Tzu, can easily call this connectedness Tao.
All life is being lived. Who is living it, then?
Is it the things themselves,
or something waiting inside them,
like an unplayed melody in a flute? Is it the winds blowing over the waters?
Is it the branches that signal to each other?
Is it flowers
interweaving their fragrances,
or streets, as they wind through time? Is it the animals, warmly moving,
or the birds, that suddenly rise up?
Who lives it, then?
God, are you the one who is living life?
-Rainer Rilke, Book of Hours
"Because of this"
The final two lines of this chapter are, to put it lightly, vexing. The second to last line is a question, which is basically Lao Tzu asking his audience, “How do I know all this?” How do I know the ways of creation, or of nature, or of the Tao?
There are plenty of ways of interpreting these vague lines, and I cover a few of them in the podcast. In my mind, the lesson here is that there eventually comes a point at which we come to a point where we can no longer answer the “how” question in our spirituality. We can continue pressing with questions and investigating deeper and deeper, but sooner or later we will hit a wall where we can only say, “Well, I just know.” We can only deconstruct so much, and there is no rational, bedrock foundation for faith and spirituality. Descartes got as far as “I think, therefore I am,” in his epistemology (philosophy of what we know and how we can know it); Lao Tzu does a similar thing with his spirituality. “I exist, and everything else exists; therefore the Tao exists.” In fact, that is exactly how Joseph Owles translates this section:
Everything that lives and exists does so because of Tao.
That is a fact!
How can I know that?
They exist and I exist.
Something brought us into existence.
That something is Tao.
So, I know that because I exist, Tao exists.
Because Tao exists, I exist. It’s that simple.
-Translator: Joseph Owles
Even though we have explanations for so much of the universe, we cannot get down to the very core of it. Scientists have long desired to find a “theory of everything,” which is technically defined as “a hypothetical single, all-encompassing, coherent theoretical framework of physics that fully explains and links together all physical aspects of the universe.” But we haven’t found one yet. Even the definition says it’s hypothetical; and even as science continues to advance, I don’t think it’s likely we will ever find one.
Even with perfect measurements, airtight logic, and all the scientific knowledge in the world, scientists can only get as far back as the Big Bang. What happened before the Big Bang? What was the universe like? Was there even a universe, since the Big Bang was in theory the start of it? Where did the singularity come from? The best answer the scientist can give is, “We don’t know.” Then, just like Lao Tzu, they’re faced with the question, “Well then how do you know all this about the Big Bang then?” So they just look around at everything in the physical universe, or maybe all their charts and figures and measurements, and say, “Because of this.” Because it exists, and everything points back to something happening at that point in time to kick it all off.
Now, you don’t even have to accept that scientists are correct about the timing, function, details, or even the nature of the Big Bang in order to understand this metaphor. There comes a point in our questioning at which we can’t go any further. We can’t ever find the answers to the ultimate, ground-level questions about the nature of the physical universe. Quantum physics keeps getting weirder and weirder the deeper we dive, to the point that even what seem to be “universal laws” no longer apply when we delve into the science of the really big (galaxies and beyond) or really small (subatomic particles/waves). Even literal 7 day Creationists who deny evolution and the big bang run into the same problem: where did God come from? How do we know there is a God? Was there a “before” God? What was the universe like before it was created? These questions seem silly because they are too mind-boggling for our limited perspectives to even fathom.
There comes a point at which we simply have to look inside ourselves and trust whatever it is that lies at the ground of our being that tells us it’s all real. This isn’t heresy. It’s human. The last few lines of Oliver Benjamin’s paraphrase capture this extremely well.
We only know of Tao from its predicates:
A ceaseless flow of creativity from ancient times until now.
This descent of Tao endures—
Its chain of manifestations have persevered through history.
We too are a product of that lineage,
So how can we follow Tao, and manifest its virtue?
By searching within ourselves,
And locating the links.
-Translator: Oliver Benjamin
For some people, this might sound a bit blasphemous at first, but in his letter to the Romans, Paul said something very similar. He wrote that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” He even used this strategy in his missions work, when he discovered an altar built in the city of Athens to an “unknown god” and used it as an opportunity to preach. His words are actually quite Taoist sounding:
What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I announce to you. The God who made the world and all things in it, he, being Lord of heaven and earth, doesn’t dwell in temples made with hands, neither is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he himself gives to all life and breath, and all things. He made from one blood every nation of people to dwell on all the surface of the earth, having determined appointed seasons, and the boundaries of their dwellings, that they should seek the Lord, if perhaps they might reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live, and move, and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also his offspring.’ Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold, or silver, or stone, engraved by art and design of man. (Acts 17)
Lao Tzu said, “How do I know all about the Tao and creation and the universe? Because of this.” If we cannot find answers to the ground-level questions of the nature of the universe or the existence and nature of God and human spirituality in and of themselves, then there will come a certain point in our line of reasoning where we just have to consider everything we have learned or just look around us at the whole world and say, “Well, because of this.”