Philosophical Taoism

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Philosophical Taoism, often represented by the yin-yang symbol, originated in China with the teacher Lao Tzu (604–517 BC ). Although we do not know much about his life, he left his teachings behind for posterity in a brief work called Tao Te Ching, that is, “The Way and Its Power/Virtue.” The term Tao is typically translated as “way” or “path.”

The chief goal of philosophical Taoism is to conserve life’s vitality by not expending it in the useless ways of friction and conflict. One does this by living in harmony with the Tao (way) of all things: the way of nature, of society, and of one’s self. Action in harmony with the Tao is called wu-wei, which literally means “non-action.” Practically, wu-wei describes action that reduces friction in interpersonal relationships, intra-psychic conflict, and our relation to nature to a minimum (Huston Smith, The World’s Religions, p. 200).

To live in harmony with the Tao, we must get an idea of what it is. This is difficult, for the Tao Te Ching asserts that words are inadequate to explain the Tao: “The Tao … that can be told of is not the eternal Tao” (Wing-Tsit Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, p 139; hereafter SBCP ).

Though words cannot fully explain the Tao, they can suggest it. In chapter 25 of the Tao Te Ching we read:

There was something undifferentiated and yet complete, which existed before heaven and earth. Soundless and formless, it depends on nothing and does not change. It operates everywhere and is free from danger. It may be considered the mother of the universe. I do not know its name; I call it Tao. (SBCP , p. 152)

The Tao, then, is prior to the physical universe. Independent and unchanging, it operates everywhere. Apparently, it gave birth to the universe. So, the Tao sounds awfully similar to the Christian God, doesn’t it? However, some of these similarities are more apparent than real—and there are also major differences.

God and the Tao

After Lao Tzu, the most important philosophical Taoist is Chuang Tzu (399–295 BC ), author of the text Chuang Tzu. His thoughts on the Tao are similar to Lao Tzu’s. For example, Chuang Tzu teaches: “Before heaven and earth came into being, Tao existed by itself from all time… . It created heaven and earth” (SBCP , p. 194).

Does Chuang Tzu view the Tao as Creator in the same way that Christians view God? Probably not. Properly speaking, Taoists view the Tao more as a principle than a person. Indeed, some scholars speak of the Tao as “an impersonal force of existence that is beyond differentiation” (Dean C. Halverson, ed., The Compact Guide to World Religions, p. 224; hereafter CGWR).

Even so, the Tao and God are similarly credited with creating heaven and earth. This may be a point of contact to begin a meaningful dialogue between Christians and Taoists about ultimate reality. This dialogue should acknowledge any common ground that we share as well as our differences (see Acts 17). The greatest difference is that the Tao is impersonal whereas God is personal. The Tao is like a force, principle, or energy; the Christian God is a personal being. But ultimate reality cannot be both personal and impersonal at the same time and in the same sense.

Morality and the Tao

If ultimate reality is impersonal, as Taoism suggests, significant questions are raised. What becomes of morality? Can an impersonal force be the source of objective moral values? Can an impersonal force distinguish good from evil, or can such distinctions be made only by personal beings? What of our sense of obligation to do good and avoid evil? Can we be morally obligated to obey an impersonal force, or does our nagging sense of obligation presuppose a Lawgiver who holds us accountable?

All honest people recognize objective distinctions between moral good and evil. Such distinctions are not ultimately dependent on our preferences or feelings; they are essential to reality. But the Tao cannot make such distinctions and serve as an objective source of ethics. Only a personal agent can fill such roles.

Chuang Tzu explicitly teaches moral relativism: “In their own way things are all right … generosity, strangeness, deceit, and abnormality. The Tao identifies them all as one” (SBCP , p. 184). This is unsurprising given the impersonalism of Taoist philosophy. People distinguish between right and wrong, good and evil, but the impersonal Tao identifies them all as one.

This view has serious implications. Shouldn’t moral distinctions be abandoned if we must live in harmony with the Tao? If the Tao makes no such distinctions, why should its followers? Indeed, Chuang Tzu belittles those who embrace such distinctions, declaring that they “must be either stupid or wrong” (SBCP , p. 206).

Christianity, however, teaches that there are objective moral values grounded in the eternal, transcendent, holy God of the Bible. Unlike the Tao, the Christian God is not beyond moral distinctions: “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). He is “a God of faithfulness and [is] without injustice” (Deut. 32:4). While Taoism proclaims an impersonal principle that judges no one, Christians confess a personal God to whom we are morally accountable and who will one day judge the world in righteousness (Acts 17:31; Rom. 1:18–2:6).

Persons and the Tao

Ultimately, a personal Lawgiver provides a better explanation for objective moral values than an impersonal principle. The existence of human persons is also better explained by a personal Creator than by the impersonal Tao.

Personal beings (such as humans) possess intellects, emotions, and wills. They are able to think, feel, and take considered action. Personal beings can form and maintain relationships with other people. Impersonal principles (such as the Tao) cannot do any of these things.

The God of Scripture, on the other hand, is a personal being who thinks, knows, and understands (Ps. 139). He works “all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11). He forms and maintains relationships with other people (Jer. 1:5; Gal. 1:15). This was true even before He created anything. From all eternity, the three distinct persons of the Godhead—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—have enjoyed intimate communion and fellowship with one another (John 14–17).

If a cause is always greater than its effects, then is the ultimate cause of human people more likely to be personal or impersonal? It seems more reasonable that the ultimate cause of human people is the personal God of the Bible, not the impersonal Tao.

Evangelism and the Tao

We read this statement in chapter 67 of the Tao Te Ching: “When Heaven is to save a person, Heaven will protect him through deep love” (SBCP , p. 171). Notably, personal attributes are here ascribed to what is supposed to be an impersonal heaven. “When Heaven is to save a person” implies a considered action on heaven’s part. Yet only personal beings can take considered action. Additionally, the sentence speaks of heaven protecting a person through “deep love.” But an impersonal force is incapable of love. Such love requires a personal agent. Consider also this interesting statement from chapter 62 of the Tao Te Ching:

Why did the ancients so treasure this [T]AO? Is it not because it has been said of it: “Whosoever asks will receive; whosoever has sinned will be forgiven”? Therefore is [T]AO the most exquisite thing on earth. (CGWR, p. 229)

This passage raises two difficulties for philosophical Taoism. First, “forgiveness means that a moral standard has been broken. But the Tao is beyond such moral distinctions!” Second, only persons can forgive (CGWR, p. 229).

Such statements may open the door for Christians to tell their Taoist friends about the love and forgiveness of God revealed in the Bible. In John 3:16, Jesus spoke of God’s love: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” The Apostle John spoke of God’s continued willingness to forgive His children (1 John 1:9). Since only people are capable of love and forgiveness, the personal God of the Bible alone can be the ultimate source of such precious gifts.

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