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.

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