Monday, May 30, 2011

In the Beginning Was the Dao pt. 2: Transcendence

This is part 2 of a series comparing and contrasting Daoism and Christianity.  For part 1, click here, and for part 3, click here.

“In the beginning was the Dao, and the Dao was with God, and the Dao was God.”

Obviously, the most important aspect of any religion is what it worships.  (Arguably, that is also the most important aspect of any secular philosophy, but arguing for that would be a long tangent.)  Although philosophical Daoism does not include prayer, rituals, or other behaviors we would categorize as worship, it does hold the Dao to be transcendent and utterly beyond human comprehension, characteristics Christians attribute to God.

John’s claim that “in the beginning was the Word” reflects a Christian belief that Christ existed before creation, which relates to the fact that He is eternal, without beginning or end.  “The beginning” means the very first beginning, so if God already was at “the beginning,” He must have always existed. Otherwise, God’s beginning would be the first beginning.  On the other end of the spectrum, Paul calls Jesus the one “who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1Tim 6:16).  This means that not only does Christ have no beginning, but He also has no end.  The reference to “unapproachable light” means that human minds cannot fully comprehend God.  Note that this is not because God is irrational, which would be symbolized by darkness.  Rather, God is supremely rational, but just as our eyes are not equipped to look directly at the sun, our minds are not equipped to understand the truth of who He is.

The Dao also has many of these properties.  It is eternal, which makes it fundamentally different from “things,” whose lifespans are limited to a set amount of time. As the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi says, “The Way is without beginning or end, but things have their life and death - you cannot rely upon their fulfillment.”  Similarly, although the Dao affects the things that make up the universe, it does not change; “We speak of the filling and emptying, the withering and decay of things. [The Way] makes them full and empty without itself filling or emptying; it makes them wither and decay without itself withering or decaying.” This unchanging nature of the Dao resembles the Christian doctrine of God’s immutability (the idea that God’s essential nature does not change).  Zhuangzi also believes that the Dao is incomprehensible.  He consistently criticizes those who claim to understand it, and argues that “understanding that rests on what it does not know is finest.”  In other words, thinking you know something about the Dao is proof that you actually know nothing about it, because the Dao goes beyond logic.  This is one difference between Daoism and Christianity; while Christianity sees reason as one aspect of humanity being made in the image of God and therefore as a good thing, Zhuangzi sees reason, and all language, as an artificial human invention that prevents us from truly experiencing the Dao.

In a speech to some Greek philosophers, Paul claims that God “does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands as though he needed anything” (Acts 17:24-25).  The people he was addressing believed that gods lived in their temples, and would not think of a god living anywhere else.  By claiming that God does not live in a temple, Paul invites the reader to draw the conclusion that God has no physical location because He transcends space.  Moreover, this verse claims that God does not need anything that people could give Him, which is because God is self-sufficient and thus has no needs.  These characteristics demonstrate transcendence, an attribute that God has in common with Zhuangzi’s view of Dao.

However, the passage that describes God as transcending space and existing independently goes on to touch on a significant difference between God and the Dao; God “gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25).  Although Zhuangzi would agree that everything comes from the Dao and could not exist apart from it, he would never claim that the Dao “gives” things to humanity.  Zhuangzi sees people as a part of the natural system, which the Dao does not value any more than anything else.  Moreover, the Dao is impersonal, so it does not “value” or “give” anything. 

The Bible depicts God as a personal being who speaks, makes decisions, has feelings, and makes moral judgments.  In Exodus 20, God speaks to the people of Israel and tells them what actions are right and what actions are wrong.  Christians believe that these laws are not simply arbitrary, but that they reflect God’s nature.  Later, when the Israelites disobey these laws, God sends prophets who tell them that they will be punished but that God will not completely destroy them because his “compassion grows warm and tender” (Hosea 11:8).  God’s moral standards and emotional attachment to his people indicate that he is a personal, relational being, despite his transcendence. 

In contrast, the Dao incorporates everything and treats everything as one. It cannot relate personally to any one thing, since that would require distinguishing it from other things.  From the Dao’s perspective, everything is fundamentally the same, since everything is part of the Dao itself.  This means that all distinctions are illusory, including the distinction between good and evil, as I will discuss in the next installment.  Zhuangzi also believes that all things are subject to change, and will eventually be transformed into their opposites, so distinctions between things are also temporary.  However, to have a personal relationship with someone requires distinguishing that person from other people.  A friend is by definition someone that one knows uniquely, as an individual.  Similarly, emotions require a change in state, which the Dao, being eternal and unchanging, is incapable of.  Thus, Dao and God are both believed to be transcendent, in that they are independent of time, and space, but they differ in that God is a personal source of morality and Dao is an impersonal entity that incorporates both good and evil.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

In the Beginning Was the Dao pt. 1

My final paper as an undergraduate (eek!) was for a class I took on ancient Chinese religions.  The class was fascinating, as was my topic for the paper: a comparison between Christianity and the thought of Zhuangzi*, a Daoist philosopher. 

Zhuangzi was sort of the Apostle Paul of Daoism.  He didn’t create the system of thought (that was done by his predecessor Laozi, whose name means “old master”), but he did develop it and expand on its implications for ethics, society, language, and more.  Most Daoist thought is based on Zhuangzi.

Western philosophy since the time of Socrates has emphasized the importance of defining key terms before one starts making arguments.  Unfortunately, no one told this to Zhuangzi.  He never explains exactly what the Dao is.  The word “dao” literally means “way,” a straight path with a single destination.  Thus, the translation I quote will use “Way” where I would say “Dao.”  Zhuangzi held that the Dao was so far above our understanding that “There is no name that fits the Way.”  There is a sense in which the Dao incorporates everything in the universe.  Zhuangzi says that just as when we see all the parts of a horse’s body, we treat it as one unit (a horse), the Dao is “the generality that embraces” everything.  Everything other than the Dao is composed of varying amounts of yin and yang, two fundamental principles that correspond to earth/cold/dark/female and heaven/hot/light/male, respectively.  The Dao is the source of yin and yang, which are the source of everything else.

However, this idea of the Dao as a general term for everything that exists falls short of the reality of the Dao; as Zhuangzi says, “the distance between them is impossibly far.”  This distance shows up in a passage in which Zhuangzi addresses a philosophical debate about whether the universe came from something or from nothing.  Zhuangzi argued that both views were wrong; the universe came from the Dao, which is not nothing, but it was more than a mere “thing,” as calling it something would imply: “The Way cannot be thought of as being, nor can it be thought of as nonbeing.”

When I got my first Chinese Bible after just over a year of learning Chinese, the first thing I did was turn to John 1.  The main reason was that I wanted to see how they translated the word “logos” or “word.”  To my delight, I recognized the character, which was Dao.  This is actually a far more accurate translation than the English “word” – both “Dao” and the original Greek term “logos” refer to transcendent principles that create and govern the universe (for more on “logos” see the post on my blog’s name).

This raises a question: how much of John 1 would a Daoist philosopher like Zhuangzi agree with?  This is the issue I plan to examine in future posts, using John 1 as a starting point to compare and contrast Daoism with Christianity.  At this point, it looks like it will be a fairly long series, which made me wonder whether it would be worthwhile to spend so much time analyzing a worldview that few people in today’s world (including China) really believe.  However, I decided to go ahead for three reasons:

1. I think it’s interesting, so I’ll enjoy writing it, and others may find it interesting too.

2. Daoism has a fair amount in common with other Eastern religions, and it still influences some people through the New Age movement and Star Wars.  (Hint: force = Dao)

3.  I already had a fair amount of analysis written for my paper, so why not use it?

I hope that you enjoy and benefit from this series.  Feel free to leave comments about the comparison itself or places where you’ve seen similar ideas.

*Elizabeth’s Guide to Not Completely Butchering Chinese Names:  “Zh” sounds more or less like the “g” in “giraffe,”  “zhuang” rhymes with “long,” not “clang,” and the “i” at the end is pronounced more like the “i” in “igloo” than like “eee.”  This gives you a pronunciation that isn’t exactly the way the Chinese say it, but it’s much better than the average English speaker does.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Change, Death, and Opportunity

I know basically nothing about tarot cards.  In fact, the full extent of my knowledge of the subject consists of:
1. Tarot cards are a deck of cards that some people use to predict the future. (aka the definition of the term)
2. There is a death card, which actually represents change, not death. (thank you, Castle)
3.  Tarot cards are associated with the occult, which is opposed to Christianity and are not something I want to know any more about.

In spite of point 3, I'll use point 2 as an example because of the connection it creates between change and death.  Certainly death is the ultimate change we experience.  And conversely, a big enough change in our lives can mean we are no longer the person we were before, which is a kind of death.  And as with death, on the other side of change is something unknown, mysterious and, for many people, terrifying.

And yet, my generation does not shy away from change.  Thousands of us were swept off our feet in the idealistic fervor that got Obama elected.  Although I did not campaign or even vote for Obama, I do share some of the sentiments that he so effectively appealed to.  I, too, believe that it is possible to make a positive difference in the world and see change as a golden opportunity for improvement.

So, change is death.  And change is also opportunity

I am standing on the brink of the biggest change of my life so far.  I am 21 years old.  I have been a student for 17 of those years, which is almost as long as I can remember.  Now, I am graduating in less than three weeks and moving to Taiwan one month later.

As I think about this change, I find myself pulled in two different directions.  On the one hand, leaving the campus and the people that have shaped my life over the past few years will be difficult.  Brandeis has been a wonderful school for me.  I have grown amazingly as a person and gained experiences that I will remember all my life.  Leaving this behind and stepping out into an unknown future sometimes seems like death.

And yet, the opportunity that my job in Taiwan offers is tremendously exciting.  I will work for an organization whose mission I believe deeply in, make new friends, and experience life in a completely different culture.  I am confident that this time will continue the growth that I have experienced at Brandeis, and I am thrilled and delighted by the opportunity to go.

But for now, I am left here in my room, torn between dreams for the future and nostalgia for the past, trying to make sense of my conflicting emotions.  And yet, I would not want it any other way.  I have a wonderful experience behind me and another wonderful experience in front of me.  What more could I ask for?