Six centuries before the birth of Jesus the Babylonians were destroying Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem and the Scriptures of Jeremiah, David and Ezekiel were being written. Around the time of those events in Israel, 4, 000 miles to the east a record-keeper at the Zhou dynasty court recited the now famous words of the Tao Te Ching – one of the most important pieces of ancient Chinese literature. It became a foundation of Taoist philosophy and also greatly influenced Confucianism and Chinese Buddhism. The record-keeper’s name was Lao Tzu but many scholars suspect he was a legend rather than a real person and that these writings are more likely a collection of Taoist sayings. There are also some people who say that Jesus never existed. Although that claim may be true of Lao Tzu, it doesn’t make much sense when applied to Jesus. One of the more humorous arguments for the existence of the historical Jesus is called the What About Bob? theory, and it goes like this…
Historians know that someone around 30 A.D. challenged the religious leaders of their day and started a radically different spiritual movement, and they know it was a single person and not a committee. Let’s call that person Bob. Because Bob taught an incredibly new way of living that resonates with me as truth, I want to follow him. I’m going to follow Bob. Now Bob wasn’t a typical name in first century Israel but a name that was very common was Yeshua (or Jesus). You may or may not buy into the divinity of Jesus but at least now we’re talking about an actual person instead of arguing about whether or not he ever existed.
Another interesting similarity between Taoist philosophy and the Jesus movement is that both were turned into religions, which is particularly ironic in the case of Jesus since structured religious systems were something he emphatically stood opposed to.
It’s probably safe to assume that most people reading Red Letter Christians have a pretty good grasp of Christianity but perhaps not such a thorough understanding of Taoism, so here’s a brief summary of what it’s all about. The word Tao is central to Taoist writings and it has a dual meaning. It represents the invisible force that created and controls our universe and it also means a personal way of being. A couple of basic Taoist concepts are that this ultimate power can’t be fully understood or even given a name, and that our striving to attain and hold onto riches, status and notoriety can lead us away from the ideal way of living. It’s also believed that our actions and attitudes should be consistent with the way of nature, which is entirely logical since the ideas in Taoism were arrived at by simply observing human behavior and the multitude of things that exist in the natural world.
Here are some excerpts from the 81 short verses of poetry known as the Tao Te Ching (translation by Gia Fu Feng and Jane English). You may notice some things that are similar to what Jesus taught 600 years later but that shouldn’t be surprising if both are dealing with truth.
Excerpt from Verse 2
Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness.
All can know good as good only because there is evil.
Therefore having and not having arise together.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short contrast each other:
High and low rest upon each other;
Voice and sound harmonize each other;
Front and back follow one another.
Therefore the sage goes about doing nothing, teaching no-talking.
The ten thousand things (everything in the universe) rise and fall without cease,
Creating, yet not possessing.
Working, yet not taking credit.
Work is done, then forgotten.
Therefore it lasts forever.
Excerpt from Verse 8
The highest good is like water.
Water give life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.
It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao.
In dwelling, be close to the land.
In meditation, go deep in the heart.
In dealing with others, be gentle and kind.
In speech, be true.
In ruling, be just.
In daily life, be competent.
In action, be aware of the time and the season.
No fight: No blame.
Excerpt from Verse 12
The five colors blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five flavors dull the taste.
Racing and hunting madden the mind.
Precious things lead one astray.
Therefore the sage is guided by what he feels and not by what he sees.
He lets go of that and chooses this.
Excerpt from Verse 25
Something mysteriously formed,
Born before heaven and Earth.
In the silence and the void,
Standing alone and unchanging,
Ever present and in motion.
Perhaps it is the mother of ten thousand things.
I do not know its name
Call it Tao.
For lack of a better word, I call it great.
Being great, it flows
It flows far away.
Having gone far, it returns.
Excerpt from Verse 41
The wise student hears of the Tao and practices it diligently.
The average student hears of the Tao and gives it thought now and again.
The foolish student hears of the Tao and laughs aloud.
If there were no laughter, the Tao would not be what it is.
Excerpt from Verse 49
The sage has no mind of his own.
He is aware of the needs of others.
I am good to people who are good.
I am also good to people who are not good.
Because Virtue is goodness.
I have faith in people who are faithful.
I also have faith in people who are not faithful.
Because Virtue is faithfulness.
The sage is shy and humble – to the world he seems confusing.
Others look to him and listen.
He behaves like a little child.
Excerpt from Verse 76
A man is born gentle and weak.
At his death he is hard and stiff.
Green plants are tender and filled with sap.
At their death they are withered and dry.
Therefore the stiff and unbending is the disciple of death.
The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.
Thus an army without flexibility never wins a battle.
A tree that is unbending is easily broken.
The hard and strong will fall.
The soft and weak will overcome.
Excerpt from Verse 77
The Tao of heaven is to take from those who have too much and give to those who do not have enough. Man’s way is different.
He takes from those who do not have enough and gives to those who already have too much.
What man has more than enough and gives it to the world?
Only the man of Tao.
Now for some very big questions…
Do we really believe that Christians are the only ones going to heaven and everyone else is going to hell? Is it possible that God meets people, and perhaps even entire cultures, where they’re at? Would it make any sense for God to send Jesus, the final sacrifice, to a culture that had no history of a sacrificial system? Is Jesus working in the lives of all people – even those who don’t have a personal relationship with him?
I really don’t have a clue what the answers are but it seems to me it’s important for us to be secure enough in our faith to think about challenging questions like these. Faith is an incredibly personal thing and no one can be argued into believing anything they don’t want to. Although many of the world’s major religions may have clued into aspects of ultimate truth, Jesus resonates with me as the one who most completely reveals that truth. Some people will never have the opportunity to hear his message but for those who do he said on several occasions that it’s for those who have ears to hear. If that’s true, what right do I have to expect everyone to hear what I hear and believe what I believe? Am I one of the chosen ones, the lucky ones, the enlightened ones, or am I just one of those people who goes along with the prevalent religion of my culture – just as many people of other cultures go along with theirs?
We all have the freedom to either walk towards or away from the Christian God and the Tao. Perhaps it’s the choices we make about accepting or rejecting spiritual truth in whatever form it takes that determines our eternal fate.