Embracing the Tao: 1. The Way and the Ways of God

Several of my previous posts have gestured towards the way that the last several years have unmoored and set adrift my theological bearings. This hasn’t been a quick process, but has happened in spurts and stops, with a foot forward here, a foot back there, seemingly comprehensible at one point, then bewilderingly absurd at another. For probably the first year and a half of my meandering, the resources I drew upon were largely confined to ones found in the wider orbit of Christian theology and practice. Yes, they were "oddly" Christian (at least to our modern sensibilities) like Kierkegaard or Gregory of Nyssa, or blatantly subversive like Marcella Althaus-Reid and James Cone, but my main conversation partners were still broadly Christian. And honestly, this was due to what I was comfortable with at the time. I wasn’t sure where I was going, but I wanted to hold on to things that bore at least a familial resemblance to what I was familiar with. There was something comforting in all of this, reassuring, even. It meant that there were still some guideposts that I could hold onto to provide a course by which to navigate the uncertainties which were materializing often on a daily basis. Despite these initial beginnings, however, the daily reality of wandering away from Christian community and practice has teased apart and begun to novelly resew the theological threads I find myself decked out in.

One of the sources I have found myself returning to over and over again in the last year has been the path offered by the Tao Té Ching. I began saturating myself in the way of the Tao not out of any inherent desire to find novel approaches to life and spirituality,[1] but as a result of someone remarking that he had found the Tao deeply resonating with and inspiring the course his own spiritual life had been taking over the last 10 years or so. So, I decided to look into the Tao myself.

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Written sometime in the 6th-4th century BCE by an author dubbed Lao Tzu (which means roughly “Old Master”[2]), it is a slender collection of 81 poems giving imagistic depictions of The Tao, The Way. And it is aptly named, as the Tao is not about finding an all-encompassing perspective--in Kierkegaard's parlance, "the system"--by which one might get a God’s-eye vantage point on everything. It is not about setting out a totalizing account of reality by which one could be insulated from the uncertainties and upsets intrinsic to daily life. No, the Tao Té Ching is about opening up an entrance into a lived way of life by which one might learn to live well, one day at a time, come what may. It’s more about fostering discernment and a listening disposition than in providing a mental picture by which to lock down the pitch and lurch of existence. It's about taking this world as it is, rather than as we’d like it to be, and learning to live accordingly.

Many of the poems are challenging to follow, as they elliptically wind their way from image to image, contrasting and juxtaposing realities, while simultaneously refusing to allow them to collapse into one another or to be artificially harmonized. There are also concerning depictions of gender and the political life and the state, raising more questions than they answer, but for now I’ll leave those to the sidelines (fear not, my next post will begin to explore some of these things). Like the best philosophy or literature or art, the Tao emerges not so much as a work to be acted upon, but as one which acts on the reader, shaping and molding them, beckoning them to surrender to her sway, actively changing them in the reading. It’s about learning the movements and dance steps, coming to yield to the music's leading.

Poem 34 is a moving example of this:

O the great Way o’erflows

And spreads on every side!

All being comes from it;

No creature is denied.

But having called them forth,

It calls not one its own.

It feeds and clothes them all

And will not be their lord.

 

Without desire always,

It seems of slight import.

Yet, nonetheless, in this

Its greatness still appears:

When they return to it,

No creature meets a lord,

 

The Wise Man, therefore, while he is alive,

Will never make a show of being great:

And that is how his greatness is achieved.

Here we find that the Way is a cosmic reality, spilling forth into all creation; it is the reality which births Being itself, inaugurating existence, and summoning forth all that is. All that lives has been blessed by and suffused with the Way, and none are excluded; it’s scope is universal and expansive, covering all, and it gives provision and sustenance for the journey. The Way is free of passion and seems an unremarkable and overlooked thing, yet its brilliance shines forth in the way that it refuses to dominate the creatures it has called into existence. Remarkably, this overflowing path does not exist as a sovereign dictating the path of his subjects, nor claiming them as his own, but sets them free for lives of autonomy and purpose. Those who find wisdom, who come to know and follow the Way, likewise refuse the path of glory and destiny, the path by which they might subject others to their whims and lord it over them. In this, true life may be found.

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I love this.

This vision of the cosmos saturated by and bursting with a creative reality that refuses to dominate us, but opens us up to lives indwelt by grace; this creative origin pouring itself out over the face of the deep, calling forth existence and being from the nothingness which threatens; this iridescent existence that just is the path by which we come to live well, whatever this life may bring. There’s something like a divinizing impulse at the heart of this, one which refuses the claims of mastery and control, preferring instead to let go of the reins of this life and to be simply swept along wherever its torrents lead.[3] There’s a charge and a resonance to this that touches my core in the same way that the best resources of Christianity does.

This admission would have been troubling to me once; I’m thankful that it no longer is.

The Divine speaks, and, in whatever tongues she may speak, I hope to continue to learn to listen.

The Tao offers one way by which to begin doing so.

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***Background banner is a photograph of Poem 48 from the Tao***

[1] Though I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with this.

[2] Thanks Wikipedia.

[3] I know, I know, mixed metaphors for days.