“A tree so big it can fill the span of a man’s arms grows from a tiny sprout.
A terrace nine stories high rises from a shovelful of earth.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Thus, one of integral virtue never sets about grandiose things, yet he is able to achieve great things.”
When I first started this website, I claimed that “when read prayerfully, all books can teach us about God, ourselves, and our relationship to him”. The books that I have so far reviewed have been explicitly Christian, and thus the claim has not really been put to the test. I was unsure whether to stick to this, or whether to spill over into a Jesus-centred critique of other books (although still rating them on the help that they are in one’s walk with the Lord). I now think that it would be useful for me (and I really do pray that it will be for others) to do so. Hence Tao Teh Ching.
A beautifully poetic blend of murky metaphysics and stark practically, Tao Teh Ching is a fundamental Taoist text that has informed much other Chinese philosophy and religion. Shockingly, I am not an ancient Chinese scholar, but I am informed that “Tao” means “the integral truth of the universe”, “Teh” means “the virtuous application of such knowledge”, and “Ching” means “serious spiritual guidance”.
Particularly prevalent themes of the book are painted with esoteric brushstrokes, and include the “subtle essence of the universe” (with its “Way” in light of this), oneness with the universe, “subtle virtue” as the tapping into the good life, the weak as strong, non-interference and pacifism. It does not shy away from governmental affairs, which often come with strongly Libertarian flavours.
What does the Christian get out of reading Tao Teh Ching? It is very, very pretty, and for that we must give thanks. Looking through Lao Tzu’s eyes, we can learn from the magnitude of the universe that he sees. His clear yearning for oneness with this reality may well be a godly desire that we should imitate as we contemplate a New Creation in which harmony will be restored between us and our Lord’s world.
Lao Tzu exhibits a desire for a quiet simplicity and a single-focus to life, something we often ignore to the detriment of our devotional life and evangelism. Recently, Christian writers like Foster have re-ignited a thirst for this going “deeper” in our prayer lives. However, Tao Teh Ching displays potentially frightening levels of selfishness in this introspection, something shared by the worst parts of the monastic tradition.
Tao Teh Ching also demonstrates an admirable unity of both what the world is like and how to live in accordance with this vision, something distinctly missing in 21st century philosophy. There are even some Wittgensteinian ideas here, which may make sense of the recent interest in the relation between the philosopher and Eastern Mysticism. The unification of many areas of research by Scripture is a clear strength to our witness, and this book reminds us of its appeal.
Perhaps most interesting is the attractiveness of Lao Tzu’s musings. Here we find the vision for a religious life not centred on a personal deity, and it is one that enthrals many (well-off?) people living in the West today. It is no longer cool to be an atheist, and in the wake of this is a craving for transcendent meaning. Tao Teh Ching offers a religious lifestyle without the need to admit to sin, or come to terms with eschatology or guilt. There is no need to submit to anything. Even so, one occasionally gets the impression that Lao Tzu really wishes the universe was personal.
To the great surprise of thinkers of the last century, but of no surprise to readers of Ecclesiastes, religion has become attractive to the non-believer again, albeit in her Western, altered way. This is expressed in alarmingly laughable degrees in the “disclaimer” at the start of the translation I own, a sign of an age in which religious texts are found in the self-help section and a non-committal culture gets its hands on the transcendent:
“This book is intended to present information and techniques that have been in use throughout the Orient for many years. This information and these practices utilize a natural system within the body; however, no claims are made regarding their effectiveness…The author and publisher of this book are not responsible in any manner for any harm that may occur through following the instructions in this book.”