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A Christian Dao?

We did Chinese religions in class last week, and the homework assignment was to read the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching) and write two pages that answers the question, "What is this text?"

It's not an easy assignment. If your working definition of great religious literature is "profoundly obscure," you'd be hard-pressed to find a better example than the Daodejing.

In one of the best essays I read, a student wrote that what he loved about the Daodejing was the lack of coercion or compulsion here that seems to be in every other religion. He's right. Animism is all about wearing amulets or memorizing spells to manipulate the spirits or the ancestors into blessing your fields with a bumper crop, not a blight. In their classic forms, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity are all about subduing desire, whether it's socially conditioned or biologically generated. And then there's the other-directed compulsion--everything from religious wars to blue laws and whatnot.

If you haven't read it, the Daodejing insists that an impersonal absolute, the Dao, is the warp and woof of the universe. Further, much of what passes for civilization, making a name for yourself, governing nations, winning wars, starting a business, etc., is so much futile swimming upstream. It's painful and stressful because you're going against the grain. Why keep hurling yourself against "the uncarved block?" It's an immovable object, and you are no irresistible force.

Just go with the flow. It's given to the crocuses to come up every spring. The trees blossom of their own accord. The house wrens turn up every April 15, right as rain. They're in tune with the Dao. And you'll blossom too, if you throw away your paddle and drift downstream.

I suppose that the natural point of contact between Daoism and the West is Stoicism, which commends conforming oneself to nature and fate, but there are hints of it in Christianity too:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34

The difference is that not all striving is eschewed here, but only the striving for material goods. And for Jesus, the ground of the universe, is a personal God whose flow we go with out of gratitude for his favor, whereas the Dao is not interested in us.

A dogmatic point of contact might be two of Luther's theses in the Heidelberg Disputation: "He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ," and "The law says 'Do this,' and it is never done. Grace says, 'Believe this,' and everything is already done."

What people don't like about the Reformed tradition is that it doesn't have a strong enough concept of human freedom, but you know what? Freedom is overrated. Hell, it's exhausting. It's exhausting for the preacher who, week after week, year after year, can't seem to move his/her congregation off the dime. And he/she should be able to, right? All they need is the proper information, right? 

Maybe it really is as simple as let go and let God. Maybe, as Schleiermacher says in an almost throw-away comment, preachers should stop preaching in imperatives and start preaching in indicatives. Telling people that they need to accept Christ, or work for justice is like telling the house wrens when to fly north, or worse yet, that they need to fly in a different direction. Tell them that Christ has accepted them; tell them that the God whose children they are is just.

Would that really take care of it?

It works as long as you take an aesthetic, not a biological view of nature. Aesthetically, there is a giveness to nature which may be true of our deepest selves, but biologically, it's all red in tooth and claw. Coercion all the way down.

But biology, in limiting itself to tracking down an infinite regression of proximate causes, can't give an accounting of what it all means and where we're all going, so I don't know why in this case, science has to trump art.

Originally posted at Avdat.

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