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Brandon Rhodes

CHN 305: Analytical Paper

December 1, 2004
Dao Dei

Much of the business of a Christian missionary is to make Christ relevant to that

culture by finding reflections, echoes, and parallels of the Christian creed with the

folktales, mores, and religions of their ‘target’ culture. Doing this is not attempting to

affront the native culture, assimilate Westernism into it, or impose religion through

deceptive means. Rather, this practice has plain Biblical grounds. Paul writes, “To the

Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews… I have become all things to all men so that

by all possible means I might save some.”(1 Corinthians 9:20a, 22b) Furthermore,

Paul’s letter to the Romans teaches that those unaware of Christ often have developed and

practiced customs or faiths which have strong mirrors and parallels of the basic ‘Gospel’

message. Indeed, Christian missionaries have discovered uncanny parallels between

native cultures and the Christian Gospel of (in seminary jargon) a divine avatar being the

atoning sacrifice for the propitiation of sin of a depraved humanity. To the Christian, the

universal need for redemption is written on our hearts (Romans 2:15). Commonly,

though, many of the parallels between New Testament ideas and indigenous folkways or

faiths deviate from this core salvific avatar narrative; moral principles and other subtleties

of Christian theology are echoed instead. For example, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, the

second most widely published book globally and the central text of the Taoist tradition,

offers many such examples. In it, Lao Tzu frequently mirrors (if dimly) several aspects

of Christianity. His ultimate conception of the Way or Tao, however, has irreconcilable

differences in relation to the Christian Yahweh.

This cursory consideration of parallels is not to imply a universalist doctrine that

both Christ and the Tao are equally acceptable means to an ultimate end. There is ample

textual evidence to suggest each faith – particularly Christianity – to be mutually

exclusive. It suffices, though, that due appreciation be given to the mirrored concepts

between these two admirable faiths.

Much modern frustration with (and admiration for) the Tao Te Ching is derived

from it being permeated with a sense of paradox, inversion, and contradiction. “The

submissive and weak will overcome the hard and strong” (Tao Te Ching, XXXVI-97a, p.

41), the learned know nothing, and “the name that can be named is not the constant

name” (Tao Te Ching, I-1, p. 5); such seemingly nonsensical idioms distinguish the work

and perplex many readers as few texts do. The Bible presents a way of life which, like

the Tao Te Ching, often smacks of paradox, counter-intuition, and upended social

relations. Indeed, the biblical Kingdom of Heaven or the New Jerusalem is often

portrayed as a utopian world-upside-down where “many who are first will be last, and

many who are last will be first,” (Matthew 19:30) and “blessed are the meek, for they will

inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). These inverted social relations are echoed by Lao Tzu,

when he waxes that the way of Heaven is that “the high it presses down, the low it lifts

up,” (Tao Te Ching, LXXVII-184, p. 84) and it is in it “that the weak overcome the strong,

and the submissive overcomes the hard” (Tao Te Ching, LXXVIII-187, p. 85).

In neither faith is it the case that this inversion and paradox is limited to a coming

Blessed Hope or ultimate and impracticable Way forever limited to the future. In both,

mystical expression through the humble or downcast and the upending of social position

are immanent behaviors of Heaven. The Taoist holds fast that “weakness is the means the

way employs” (Tao Te Ching, XL-88, p.47). Likewise, Christ posits that his “power is

made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) Even Christ saying that “whoever

humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4)

mirrors Lao Tzu’s counsel that “one who possesses virtue in abundance is comparable to

a new born babe” (Tao Te Ching, LV-125, p. 62). The Christian God becomes, as C.S.

Lewis said “the great iconoclast,” while in understanding the Tao “straightforward words

seem paradoxical” (Tao Te Ching, LVXXVII-189, p. 85).

Even some parts of basic Christology are echoed in Lao Tzu’s work. Central to

Christianity is the deity of Jesus of Nazareth; in him “all the fullness of the Deity lives in

bodily form.” (Colossians 2:9) Christ was in life God’s representative to humanity, and

in death humanity’s representative to God. He had the “appearance as a man, he humbled

himself and became obedient to death” (Philippians 2:8) and so ushered in the New

Covenant. Likewise, Taoism prefigures a similar principle, as when Lao Tzu explains

that “the large state, by taking the lower position annexes the small state; The small state,

by taking the lower position, affiliates itself to the large state” (Tao Te Ching, LXI-142, p.


Much of the bare bones of Christ’s message and mission were also prefigured in

Taoism. Jesus of Nazareth presented both theological ideas and a way of life consisting

largely of nonviolence, of turning the other cheek toward hatred and loving one’s

enemies. He gave new life and a new lifestyle; apropos, his early adherents were called

“followers of the Way” (Acts 22:4). The mirror here with Taoism is glaring: tao literally

means ‘way’ or ‘path.’ Taoists, then, if only linguistically, are also “followers of the

Way.” This new living of humility, submission, and abiding love has many topical-level

parallels in Lao Tzu’s writing, including that “one who excels as a warrior does not

appear formidable; one who excels in fighting is never roused in anger; one who excels in

defeating his enemy does not join issue… This is known as matching the sublimity of

heaven” (Tao Te Ching, LXVIII-166-166a, p. 75). Lao Tzu’s exhortation that we “do

good to him who has done [us] an injury” (Tao Te Ching, LXIII-148, p. 70) prefigures

Jesus’ ‘Golden Rule’ that we should “in everything, do to others what you would have

them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).

The fascinating arch through all of this is that Lao Tzu has not prefigured any of

the Bible stories or accounts, as other cultural narratives tend to do (Noah’s Flood and the

Messiah story are among the most widely echoed). Rather, what the Old Master has most

paralleled are, as briefly cited above, the raw paradox inherent to Christian living. At

first blush, both “he who considers himself right is not illustrious” (Tao Te Ching, XXIV-

55, p. 29) and “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21) make little sense,

yet when considered in context of their overall faith system become crucial, if not focal,

truths. Following “the Way,” within each text, is therefore tantamount to becoming a

walking, waking paradox.

A final parallel is that of stillness. In Taoism, stillness is the way to finding the

Tao and to structuring the empire. Lao Tzu writes, “I do my utmost to attain emptiness; I

hold firmly to stillness” (Tao Te Ching, XVI-37, p. 20), and so seeks to empty himself for

the Tao. Similarly, stillness both in quiet places and amidst turmoil is a valuable and

God-honored practice for Christians. Inner peace, meditation, and prayer are all deeply

intertwined. Countless examples exist in the Bible; for example, when the Jewish

people’s exodus from Egypt halted at a yet-to-be-parted Red Sea, Moses called out, “The

Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still” (Exodus 14:14). David beckons us

through song to “Be still before the Lord,” (Psalms 37:7) while later in Psalms, one reads

“Be still and know that I am God” (Psalms 46:10). Lao Tzu and the Bible’s writers

shared the belief that at times we all need to let go, clear our hearts and minds, and trust

in a higher power.

Yet the placement of trust for each is drastically different. The Bible’s

contributors speak of being still before an immanent, personal, and knowable God; Lau

Tzu follows an unknowable, impersonal Tao. The Tao is mysterious, and “conceals itself

in being nameless” (Tao Te Ching, XLI-92, p. 48). It is this mysteriousness which

perhaps draws folks like Catholic theologian Thomas Merton to admire the Tao Te Ching,

a text which would otherwise be castigated by the Vatican as heathen. He appreciates

that the elusive Tao that “is for ever nameless” (Tao Te Ching, XXXII-72, p. 37) echoes

his conception of a God which is mysterious in his workings and incomprehensible in his

vastness. Yet one ought not confuse mysteriousness with unknowability. The Bible’s

Yahweh is named and intimately involved in the lives of shepherds, kings, farmers, and

fishers. This contrasts profoundly with a silent, void, and nameless Tao which is of most

value to emperors and other ministers of the state. This is the greatest gap between the

faiths. Though Lao Tzu prefigured and paralleled many beautiful aspects of the Christian

Bible, he falls short in ascribing to the supernatural a personable agency, instead granting

the faithful only a cold, vague, elusive Tao.