41. Lao Tzu and the Tao

Pre-Christian cultures all attempted to explain God in some way. In China, Lao Tzu's Tao explained God just as the Greek Presocratics explained Him through Logos.
Confucius visits Lao Tzu

What was God’s purpose for ancient pre-Christian cultures like Greece and China? In Post 40, I discussed how the Logos, the wisdom of God, enlightened pre-Christian cultures throughout the world. The Logos granted wisdom and left signs pointing the way to the one true God, preparing people for the coming of His Son.

In regard to God’s purpose for ancient pagan cultures, there are two basic errors that Christians make.

The more liberal Christians lean toward universalism, saying that all roads lead to God and there are no distinctions between Christ or Buddha or Mohammed, etc..1 The Bible, on the other hand, certainly does make distinctions. Consider Jesus’ own words:

“I am the way, the truth, the life. Nobody comes to the Father except through me.”2

And Acts 4:12 states:

“There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

On the other hand, more conservative Christians often err in the opposite direction, thinking that all pagan, pre-Christian cultures were completely lost and that there was no hope for them whatsoever. While it is true that Jesus Christ is manifested most fully through his Church and that salvation is found primarily in his Church, that doesn’t mean that people like Socrates or Lao Tzu, who were outside the Church, could not be enlightened or saved.

The example of Job from the Bible proves this idea false. Many of the ancients believed that Job was the Jobab found in Genesis 36:34. If this is the case, then Job was an Edomite king, outside the promised line of Jacob. Concerning this topic of the virtuous pagan, I went into detail on this in Post 39 on Justin Martyr.

In addition, among extremely conservative Calvinistic or Reformed Churches, there is a sense that the pagan world was merely a foil or backdrop to illustrate the glories of God’s salvation among the “elect.” In other words, the entire purpose of those ancient pagan cultures was to, in a sense, make us feel better or “more grateful” about being the enlightened ones.

These erroneous ideas are easily refuted with passages such as the following from Acts 17:

“And he made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him. Yet he is not far from each one of us.”3

Also consider the following passage from Acts 14:

“In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways; yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good and gave you from heaven rains and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”4

Finally, on this topic, I appreciate the following quote from Christopher Hollis’s Noble Castle:5

“People sometimes speak as if the Christian was under some form of obligation to deny any glimmer of discovered truth to thinkers who do not play their part in the Christian story…. On the contrary, it is most obvious that Christianity teaches that all mankind, Christian or pre-Christian, was created by God, and all creation was for a purpose. The pre-Christians had their part to play in witnessing to the greater glory of God. It would be both blasphemy and heresy to think otherwise, and almost a greater blasphemy to think that generations were created merely to minister to the comfort of their more enlightened descendants by being always wrong.”

Aristotle’s golden mean is useful here – define the two extremes and the truth is somewhere in the middle.

The Unfolding of Wisdom Through the Ages

A more positive way of looking at the above dichotomy – the “lumping all religions together” approach versus the “all or nothing” approach – is to take a cue from ancient Christian teachers. They saw the search for truth as an “unfolding of wisdom throughout the ages.”5 This idea comports much more congruously with historical realities. In other words, if we look back into the past, this is what we see.

The prudent thing to do when discussing complex matters such as this is to take a nuanced approach. Unfortunately, we live in an age of extremes where the nuanced middle has been almost completely cast out.

These Christian teachers, such as Justin Martyr (110-165), St. Clement of Alexandria (153-217), and Lactantius (260-330) saw Christ foreshadowed, not only among the ancient Hebrew prophecies but also among the writings of the sages of pre-Christian cultures. In China, these thinkers would be Lao Tzu and Confucius.6

I have discussed Justin Martyr and quoted from Clement of Alexandria, but have not yet mentioned Lactantius. He was a Christian apologist who took a more nuanced approach toward pagan literature and poetry.7 Unlike his contemporary – the Christian apologist Arnobius – Lactantius saw the truth about humanity and divinity that lay behind the prima facie rendering of those texts. Arnobius, on the other hand, took a literalistic approach to pagan poetry. For him, pagan poetry and literature made truth statements about the gods and those truth statements were wrong. Despite their differences, they both condemned the immorality found in those stories.

Obviously, I advocate the approach of Lactantius. Although, in my opinion, it is much easier to do this with Chinese writings than Greek writings. The portrayal of divinity in Greek mythology had become far more distorted than in Chinese writings, with the Greeks portraying their gods as very flawed and immoral beings. The Chinese, on the other hand retained a more pure and pristine view of divinity, albeit not without its own set of problems.

This illustrates how God did not give every gift to any one of the pre-Christian cultures. To the Greeks he gave a philosophical mind and to the Chinese, a clearer understanding of the nature of God. The Jews had direct revelation, but they did not have a philosophical mind.

A Broken Reflection of the Moon in Water

In Christ the Eternal Tao, Hieromonk Damascene states:

“If we concede that the pre-Christian philosophers did seek the truth, and that they did catch glimpses of it, it only stands to reason that their teachings should bear some similarities, like a broken reflection of the moon in water, to the fullness of Truth in Jesus Christ. Therefore, these similarities need not appear as a threat to Christianity; instead, they offer one more proof of Christ as universal Truth.”8

To continue on with the theme of the “unfolding of wisdom through the ages,” the ancient Christian teachers saw not only the ancient Hebrew prophecies but also ancient writings of pre-Christian sages – such as Lao Tzu and Confucius – as preparatory foreshadowing of the fullness of revelation in Christ.9 I would also include within that mix Greek philosophers such as Socrates and Roman philosophers such as Cicero, not to mention Buddha, of course.

But just as the Old Testament Hebrew revelation fell short of realizing the the fullness of the revelation of God in Christ, so too did those other ancient writings. They all were merely signposts pointing the way to the One who was to come. If it were God’s desire to save the world as stated in the promises to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3), then it logically follows that He would be at work in these pre-Christian cultures to prepare them for the coming of Christ.

In regard to the above question of God’s purpose for ancient pre-Christian cultures, the answer is simple – to prepare them for the coming of Christ.

Lao Tzu and the Tao of the Original State

As I mentioned in Post 40, the philosophers Lao Tzu and Confucius were born into the world of 6th century B.C. China, which, although essentially monotheistic, had fallen from the pristine simplicity of an earlier time of devotion to God and closeness with nature.10 They both desired to see Chinese culture return to this pristine simplicity. While Confucius scoured the ancient classics seeking to unlock and apply the knowledge of the ancients, Lao Tzu sought a more direct approach: direct intuition. He harkened back to the pure state in which man was originally created. He stated the following:

“The primitive origin of man: Here indeed is the clue to the Tao.”11

According to Chan Kei Thong, in Faith of Our Fathers: God in Ancient China, embedded in Chinese characters are the details of the origin of the earth and mankind as found in Genesis, the first book of the Bible.12 Chinese characters still contain stories and meanings of the original pictographs from which they came, and many of these characters go all the way back to the beginning. Even though the styles and pronunciations of the characters have changed, the original picture story is still embedded in those characters. It is like having a snapshot or photograph of events that occurred at the beginning of human history!

According to Thong, the appearance of Chinese characters in the timeline of Chinese history occurred at about the same time as the events of the Tower of Babel.13 He posits that those who fled the chaos of Babel settled in what would eventually become China. They then formulated a written language based on the symbols of the oral traditions that were widespread in the world at that time, some of which were handed down from Adam.

For example, Thong refers to symbols such as (fu) which means “happiness” or “blessing.”14 The symbol above is the modern form of the character. In the ancient form of this character, the right side consists of a pair of hands raised in worship underneath a flask of wine, and the left side is an altar that symbolizes God, the self-revealing One. Taken as a whole, this character illustrates the original state of blessing in Eden – before the Fall – where man lived in a close relationship with God in a state of worship and bounty. Thong has many other examples of how Chinese characters tell the Genesis story. He discusses characters that represent the forbidden tree, the tempter, sin, death, and sacrifice, among others.15

The main point being that embedded within the pictographs of Chinese characters is the story of the creation, fall, and redemption of man.

Lao Tzu and the Tao of Humility

As stated above, whereas Confucius desired to restore Chinese culture by reintroducing the teachings and practices of the ancients, Lao Tzu took another direction, even though as the keeper of the Royal Archives, he was steeped in the classics.16 He desired to go well beyond Chinese history, even before the Great Flood was recorded by the ancients, to the pristine time at the beginning of human history before the Fall.

Lao Tzu realized that, in the beginning, man had an unmediated relationship with God, apprehending the true reality directly as symbolized by the character 蝠 (fu) mentioned above.17 He called this period the “pristine simplicity,” the “uncarved block,” and the “return to the babe.” This was a state of undifferentiated consciousness.

He realized that the biggest obstacle to returning to this state was himself. He had to get himself out of the way. And the road to this was the way of humility.18 In the Tao Teh Ching, he states:

“The man of the highest virtue is like the water which dwells in lowly places. In his dwelling he is like the earth, below everyone. In giving, he is human-hearted. His heart is immeasurable.”19

For Lao Tzu, like for Dante in Divina Commedia, the way up was down. He realized that he needed to get himself out of the way. Most people, he said, think that they are the sum total of their thoughts, memories, and emotions and nothing more.20 As such, they are given over to compulsive thinking patterns that give rise to familiar feelings and emotions. They find their identity in these patterns and thus become trapped in the individuality and desires of this false identity.

In modern language, we would use the terms “self-absorbed,” “morbid introspection,” and even “narcissistic.” Lao Tzu was very insightful in describing the condition of fallen man. We are caught up with ourselves to the extent that we lose our perspective on reality. This leads to the depression, despair, and nihilism that we see today. Lao Tzu said that we do not see ourselves realistically as spiritual beings. And if we don’t see ourselves as spiritual creatures made in the image of God, then we cannot behold God.

Rather than turning to God, we just dig deeper into ourselves, thus perpetuating a vicious circle of existence. Presently, in the West, we define humanity mainly in materialistic terms, as products of blind, purposeless evolution. We think of ourselves as creatures, like animals, lacking a soul and thus the higher purpose of communing with God. It is no wonder that we are in the state that we are in. That is why Marxism is gaining ground – it speaks to those without a soul. That is also why during medical crises, such as a pandemic situation, we give overwhelming attention to the needs of the body, virtually ignoring the needs of the soul to the detriment of society.

Lao Tzu and the Tao of Virtue

Lao Tzu’s expression of humility makes me think of the emphasis put on virtue by Greek philosophers like Socrates and Aristotle as well as the medieval Catholic philosophers. The medieval philosophers were not just great thinkers, but for the most part, they were very virtuous and spiritually-minded men. In fact, one could argue that their great insights came out of the well of their piety and devotion to God.

There is a connection between knowledge or wisdom and virtue. This is something that we disregard today because when we think of knowledge, we think primarily of technology. It seems that scientists can invent new technologies whether or not they are virtuous people or whether they believe in God or not. But this is only one kind of knowledge.

There are other types of knowledge that we can call wisdom that concern spiritual and metaphysical matters. And these have bearings of things like politics and family relationships. An assessment in these areas reveals that as a society, we are woefully inadequate because we lack wisdom. We lack wisdom – rather, we have become fools – because we are neither virtuous nor spiritually-minded.

But, I digress. The main point is that Lao Tzu gained of the divine because he exercised the virtue of humility among other virtues. By rising above himself, he was able to gain insight that could only be had by looking at the common nature of man and not just at individuals.21 And by beholding or understanding the nature of man who is spiritual, Lao Tzu could thus understand divinity. It is like St. Augustine said: The better we know ourselves, the better we will know God.

Lao Tzu and the Tao of Love

The Greek philosophers pursued knowledge not for its own sake, but so that they could build a society on sound principles. Their philosophy wasn’t complete until it came out of their fingertips. They viewed politics (in the generic sense) as the natural outworking of society.

So too with Lao Tzu. Out of his insights of the divine nature, he gained wisdom on how to treat his fellow man. For example, sinologist James Legge points out that the idea of returning good for evil was new in China and it originated with Lao Tzu.22 This was a radical idea to say the least. When Confucius heard of it, he was not able to take it in. He replied, “What then will you return for good? Recompense injury with justice, and return good for good.”

To his credit, Confucius gets the credit for being the first one to formulate China’s “golden rule.”23 He stated, “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.” This was the perfection of natural human virtue, which Confucius not only taught but embodied. But Lao Tzu discovered the higher Divine law of love, that of loving one’s enemies, because he went back to discover the original state of the nature of man.

To Lao Tzu, he just discovered what was “natural.” But not fallen man, rather, pre-fallen man in his state of perfection.24 To be natural in this regard is to live in accordance with the Tao. This insight is just the starting point in discussing all of the insights about the Tao that Lao Tzu received. I will talk about some of these in this and future posts.

It is remarkable that because of his humility and desire to know God, he came closer than any other person in human history in defining the indefinable Tao with only natural revelation.25

Lao Tzu and the Tao of Light

As mentioned above, Lao Tzu gained his insights of the Tao and the original state of man by rising above himself. But how did he gain these insights? I would posit that he gained these insights in part through the pictograms of the Chinese characters. As I discussed earlier, Chinese pictograms were like photographs or snapshots of an earlier time, some of which went back to the beginning. Is this, in part, where he gained his insights about the original state of perfection? It could be that while Confucius was reading the ancients, Lao Tzu was reading the Chinese characters. This is just a thought, but an interesting one at that.

In addition, he gained his knowledge of God through mystical experiences. It is no accident that many great thinkers, especially in regard to divine things, were mystics. Examples abound and include people like Socrates, Plato, St. Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Catherine of Siena, and Hildegard of Bingen.

It will take many more posts to discuss all of Lao Tzu’s insights. But I want to end with his insight on light. It is interesting, and no accident, that many of the medieval Catholic philosophers such as St. Bonaventure, Robert Grosseteste, and St. Thomas Aquinas emphasized light in relation to God and divine illumination.26 The same goes for other thinkers and poets such as the Neoplatonist Plotinus, St. Augustine, and Dante. They all shared the common belief that it is only the light of the presence of God where we receive illumination.

The Old Testament Psalmist says to God, “In your light, we see light.”27 Lao Tzu stated something similar. He said, “Use your light 光 (kuang) to return to the light of insight 明 (ming).”28 What Lao Tzu meant by “your light” was the natural light of the human spirit. Of course, he did not mean the fallen nature of man, but the nature of man as it was originally meant to be. For when we behold the light of that nature in its purity, then we behold the light of Reality or undifferentiated consciousness. This is another way of alluding to God or the Tao. 明 means not just light, but brightness or the brightest of lights.29

This also comports with conservative Jewish theology which states that even in their innocent state, man and woman were never really naked.30 Humans were meant to be clothed even from the beginning. Some Jews believe that the original clothing in the Garden of Eden was a “garment of the light of God’s glory” that surrounded and protected the man and the woman. In other words, they were clothed in the glory of God. It was only after their rebellion that they lost this glory cover and realized that they were indeed truly naked. Christian theologians such as St. John Chrysostom believed and taught this as well.

Lao Tzu and the Tao of Order

Finally, Lao Tzu realized that the Tao was not just a source of illumination, but he intuited that it was the ordering principle behind all of creation.31 He also recognized the inward principles of created things – “the ideas of things which must exist prior to the things themselves.”32 This is what the Realist philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle recognized as universals. Plato called them “forms” and said that they were “out there somewhere,” whereas Aristotle stated that these universals were inherent to the created things.

I have explained in previous posts how the Greeks recognized the same thing and called it logos. They viewed the logos as the basis for all order, proportion, and symmetry, of which they were obsessed. The following quote from Taoist scholar Gi-ming Shien illustrates the exact same principles:

“Order is natural and necessarily requires a directing principle, for it is unimaginable that order is produced by the ordered individuals themselves. If there were no directing principle, how could there be proportion, symmetry, and the adaptation of one thing to another? There must, therefore, be an organizing power which orders – as, for example, in the seasons. The principle of the seasons, from which the seasons proceed in an orderly and never-failing fashion, must exist before the seasons themselves. The ultimate principle is, therefore, of prime importance, and it is this that Lao Tzu calls the Tao….”33

Lao Tzu and the Tao of Christ

St. John’s Gospel begins with, “In the beginning was the Word.” The original Greek is, “Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος.” The Greek word for “Word” is λόγος which is translated “logos” in English. In the Chinese Bible, this same phrase is translated as, “太 初 有 道” (tai chu you Tao).34 The fourth character 道 is the Chinese character for Tao.

There is no better translation for the word “logos” in the Gospel of John than Tao.35 Like “logos” for the Greeks, “tao” for the Chinese has a very profound meaning: that of the ordering principle of the universe which I have been discussing throughout this blog.

In fact, these words have far more significance to Greek and Chinese readers than the English translation of logos, “word,” means to an English speaker. For the English reader of the Bible, Jesus as the Word really carries little depth of meaning. It is rather abstract and devoid of meaning.

The point is that the words “logos” and “tao” are synonymous; they mean the exact same thing. It was no stretch, therefore, for translators of the Chinese Bible to translate John’s Logos to Tao. There’s no disparity between the two concepts. Chinese translators may argue over other fine points, but they do not argue over this one. This is why, in reality, what Lao Tzu was encountering through his thoughts and mystical experiences was none other than Christ the eternal Tao. He experienced and explained him better than any other person aside from special revelation.

A Word to Chinese Atheists

If you are of Chinese heritage, you have a rich treasure in your history of Chinese philosophers such as Lao Tzu. Unfortunately, your heritage has been almost completely obscured by the Chinese Communist Party. I have had the pleasure of meeting many fine Chinese people throughout my decades of living. And I have found that they fall into roughly two categories as far as their religious beliefs go: atheist and Christian.

I realize that this is an oversimplification, but this is just my experience and probably mainly describes urban Chinese. From what I understand, many of the more rural Chinese people still practice what is termed their “folk religion.” By default, it seems that people born and raised in China’s urban government schools are atheists. This is through no fault of their own, but is simply the result of years of communist atheistic indoctrination by the CCP. They know nothing else nor have they heard of anything else.

If this describes you, then I would like you to know that you have been lied to. And not only have you been lied to, but you have been robbed of the incredible joy of knowing the God of the universe through His Son Jesus Christ. You also have been robbed of the knowledge of God just like you have been robbed of your past – your great philosophical and religious heritage. Communists are good at destroying the past.

But despite the efforts of the CCP, many, in fact millions, of your compatriots have experienced the joy of knowing God by becoming Christians. They have done so because they received the message of the Gospel from outside sources. And many have suffered because of it, but they would tell you that it is a small price to pay to know the God of the universe.

I would challenge you to rediscover your rich philosophical and religious heritage in great men such as Lao Tzu. In doing so, you will discover that he, like many wise sages through the centuries, was pointing to Jesus Christ, in whom lie all of the treasures of wisdom and knowledge and the only hope of salvation.

A good place to start would be to read the book by Chan Kei Thong, called Faith of Our Fathers, listed in the bibliography below. If you would like to learn more about Christianity, please click on the following link: https://mycatholic.life/

And now, I leave you with two quotes:

The Chinese Confucian philosopher Mencius said:

“He who completely knows his own nature, knows Heaven.”36

St. Augustine said:

“Let me know myself that I may know Thee.”

Finally, consider the following question:

How is God’s goodness displayed through people like Lao Tzu? Please leave a comment below. Thank you!

Deo Gratias

Footnotes:

  1. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopedia. “Universalism”Encyclopedia Britannica, 27 Apr. 2020,
  2. John 14:6
  3. Acts 17:26-27
  4. Acts 14:16-17
  5. Damascene, Hieromonk, Christ the Eternal Tao, pp. 40-41, Valaam Books, Platina, California, 2004
  6. Ibid.
  7. Swift, Louis J. “Arnobius and Lactantius: Two Views of the Pagan Poets.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, vol. 96, 1965, pp. 439–448. JSTOR
  8. Damascene, Hieromonk, Christ the Eternal Tao, p. 41
  9. Damascene, Hieromonk, Christ the Eternal Tao, p. 40
  10. Damascene, Hieromonk, Christ the Eternal Tao, pp. 229-231
  11. Ibid.
  12. Thong, Chan Kei, Faith of Our Fathers, pp. 49-51, China Publishing Group Orient Publishing Center, Shanghai, 2006
  13. Thong, Chan Kei, Faith of Our Fathers, p. 53
  14. Thong, Chan Kei, Faith of Our Fathers, p. 54
  15. Thong, Chan Kei, Faith of Our Fathers, pp. 54-7 (This is a fascinating book which I highly recommend.)
  16. Damascene, Hieromonk, Christ the Eternal Tao, p. 231
  17. Ibid.
  18. Damascene, Hieromonk, Christ the Eternal Tao, pp. 231-235
  19. Damascene, Hieromonk, Christ the Eternal Tao, pp. 233-234
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Damascene, Hieromonk, Christ the Eternal Tao, p. 235
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Damascene, Hieromonk, Christ the Eternal Tao, p. 237
  26. Spicher, Michael R., “Medieval Theories of Aesthetics,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://iep.utm.edu/m-aesthe/#SH2c
  27. Psalm 36:9
  28. Damascene, Hieromonk, Christ the Eternal Tao, p. 236
  29. “Bright in Chinese – Chinese Character 明 míng,” Mandarin Blueprint, https://www.mandarinblueprint.com/chinese-ming-bright-chinese
  30.  Schorsch, Ismar, “The Garments of Adam and Eve,” JTS (Jewish Theological Seminary), https://www.jtsa.edu/the-garments-of-adam-and-eve, October 25, 2003
  31. Lossky, Vladimir, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, pp. 98-9, James Clarke & Co., Cambridge, 1957 as referenced in Hieromonk, p. 236
  32. Ibid.
  33. Gi-ming Shien, “Being and Nothingness in Greek and Ancient Chinese Philosophy,” pp. 16-19, Philosophy East and West, Vol. 1, no. 2, July, 1951 as referenced in Damascene, p. 236
  34. Thong, Chan Kei, Faith of Our Fathers, pp. 300-301.
  35. Ibid. (To learn more about the idea of “logos,” you can read my previous posts, starting at post 32 and reading through the present post.)
  36. Damascene, Hieromonk, Christ the Eternal Tao, p. 2

Bibliography and Sources:

Confucius, The Analects, translated by D.C. Lau, Penguin Classics, Westminster, London, 1998

Damascene, Hieromonk, Christ the Eternal Tao, Valaam Books, Platina, California, 2004

Dawson, Christopher, Dynamics of World History, Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2002

Eliade, Mircea, A History of Religious Ideas, Volume 2, From Gautama Buddha to the Triumph of Christianity, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1982, paperback edition, 1984.

Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, A History of Ultimate Reality, Fidelity Press, South Bend, Indiana, 2020

Ni, Hua Ching, Complete Works of Lao Tzu: Tao Teh Ching & Hau Hu Ching, Sevenstar Communications, Ashland, Ohio, 1995

Thong, Chan Kei, Faith of Our Fathers, China Publishing Group Orient Publishing Center, Shanghai, 2006

USCCB, Catechism of the Catholic Church online at https://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catechism/catechism-of-the-catholic-church

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