March 13, 2008

The Tao of Jesus

I'm in a class this semester about world religions, and it's been a very enlightening experience so far. We hit up Hinduism first, and it gave me some good insights into those few weeks in India, some good further explanations of what we were dealing with. Then we went to Buddhism and Sikhism, both interesting religions that arose from the Hindu tradition thare are now making their own distinct impacts on western culture.

But today we talked about Taoism, and I think I've found my favorite for the semester.

Taoism is more of a philosophy than a "religion" as such, but combine it with traditional Chinese culture and you get a religious system. There are plenty of problems when it meets up with Jesus - the ancester veneration borders on worship, the divination and astrology can be problematic - but I couldn't help but notice that its worldview has a lot of distinctly missional elements to it, stuff about which I think Jesus would have some good stuff to say.

The first thing we started with was the yin/yang. My South Korean colleages say it in a way I can't, but I really like their pronunciation the best. Anyway, basically the idea is the unity of opposites; the yang (the light, hot, active, type-A side) and the yin (the dark, cool, passive, type-B side). The two compliment and reinforce one another, existing in a perpetual dynamic equilibrium. I have to stress that yin and yang are not "good" and "evil" as such; it is my understanding that the Chinese do not understand that such extremes as pure good or pure evil DO exist, more that creatures have elements of both within them.

Then we turned to the Tao, the spiritual path. According to the Taoist, the Tao is like a road; we walk the path even if we don't know it, in the same way that a fish doesn't usually think about living in water (to paraphrase Zuang zi a Taoist philosopher). Where the path originates and where it culminates are mysterious, but what is important is the way we walk the path.

It struck me that this describes, in a way that is uncanny, both the human condition and culture. Human beings are neither pure good nor pure evil; they are a functional hybrid of potential towards either end, and the way they walk the path both influences what they become and determines who they are. C.S. Lewis writes that human beings are a synthesis of flesh and spirit, neither one nor the other yet fully both. Likewise, Jesus was an intermediary between worlds, both fully human and fully God. The concept of yin and yang works harmoniously within the Christian framework.

In the same way, the human condition is basically one of movement in time. We move along a path of our own making, of our own free decisions, interacting with other free beings in a world where sometimes things just don't make sense. We don't realize it most of the time, but we are cultural beings, born and raised in a history that has changed and morphed over thousands upon thousands of years, each culture unique and distinct and yet flowing from their roots in Eden. Culture isn't good or bad either, but it has elements of both light and dark, elements of Godliness and elements that will require redemption and transformation.

And yet this philosophy also requires some nuance. The Chinese do not believe in a God who transcends the yin and yang; the Christians do. The Chinese understanding of spirits makes for an interesting problem as well, since the spirits must regularly be appeased. This is a place for cultural transformation; since Jesus came, the spirits no longer need to be appeased as they once did. However, add these elements in a way that is culturally relevant (harder than it sounds, for example, there is a longstanding debate about what word to use for "God" in Chinese), and I wonder how well it might contextualize into Chinese culture.

The paradox of the yin and yang is the same flavor as the many paradoxes of our faith; judgment yet grace, leader yet servant, poor yet rich ... three yet one. Think of how the trinity seems to fit so well into the idea of Yin and Yang: the Father, dark and mysterious; the Son, God's bright incarnate Word; and the Spirit, the whispering vapour holding it all together through its very presence. I know it's not quite perfect, but what model of the trinity actually is?

I think that my favorite bit of wisdom was this quote from the religion's founder, Lao Tzu:
"A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worst when they despise him. Fail to honor people, they fail to honor you; but of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say 'We did this ourselves.' "
I was surprised to find my own philosophy of missions buried within Chinese culture. The missionary - the leader - should not really be seen, but it is God who is seen. The missionary is an agent of change, but also a tour guide, pointing out where God has been at work in the peoples' culture through its history. For change to happen, though, the people must decide themselves, or else it will never catch on. The missionary can't force them into it; they have to learn and grow through their mistakes as well as their successes.

I know that this tends to walk a fine line, and so I thought I'd put it out there for inspection. I'd especially love to hear from anyone who's Chinese, or has lived or worked there; does this make any sort of remote sense? I think it might work in Western culture (the bit that, like me, is fascinated with the East), but could it work in Eastern as well?

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