Saturday, June 18, 2011

In the Beginning Was the Dao pt. 4: Creation

This is part 4 of a series comparing and contrasting Daoism and Christianity.  For part 3, click here.

One major similarity between Zhuangzi’s Dao and Christianity’s God is that both are believed to be the creator and sustainer of the universe. 

Zhuangzi explains creation by saying, “The bright and shining is born out of deep darkness; the ordered is born out of formlessness; pure spirit is born out of the Way. The body is born originally from this purity.”  In other words, the Way is the ultimate origin first of spirit and then of physical things.  The Way also causes the physical things to continue and flourish: “But what the ten thousand things all look to for sustenance, what never fails them - is this not the real Way?”  Although the Way is beyond creatures’ comprehension, it is their “source” and “root” that “shepherd[s]” them in accordance with their natures.  Zhuangzi sees the Way in the nature of creatures: “Heaven cannot help but be high, earth cannot help but be broad, the sun and moon cannot help but revolve, the ten thousand things cannot help but flourish. Is this not the Way?”  Since these beings originated in the Dao, Zhuangzi sees understanding the nature of things as one key to understanding the Dao.

Similarly, Christians see God as the source and sustainer of everything.  The Bible begins with the statement, “In the Beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth” (Genesis 1:1).  Like the Dao, God wants his creations to flourish; when they are first created, he blesses them, telling them to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:22).  This blessing means more than that God wishes his creations well.  The Bible describes creation as happening in response to God’s commands, which means that God’s words have the power to shape reality.  Thus, when God tells creation to be fruitful, he causes it to do so.  The Bible portrays God as acting continually to enable creation to endure; “he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3).  Thus, Christianity and Daoism both consider something outside the universe to be its source and sustainer.

Friday, June 10, 2011

In the Beginning Was the Dao pt. 3: Morality

This is part 3 of a series comparing and contrasting Daoism and Christianity.  For part 2, click here, and for part 4, click here.

In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis writes about ethical standards that are shared across cultures, arguing that they are a part of moral law that everyone knows.  He calls this shared moral law the Tao (a different transliteration of Dao).

I’m definitely a fan of C.S. Lewis, but unfortunately, his concept of the Tao is not at all the same as the Daoist idea.  It bears some resemblance of Confucius’s idea of the Dao (yes, he talked about it too), but much Daoist work was written to contradict Confucianism.

Zhuangzi’s Dao is more like the Force in Star Wars than like a shared moral law.  Just like the Force has the Light Side and the Dark Side, and both are held in balance, the Dao incorporates all opposites, including good and evil.  This is why the yin/yang symbol has a black dot in the white section and a white dot in the black section.  Yin and yang don’t just represent good and evil -- they also include heaven and earth, male and female, hot and cold, etc.  However, the point of the symbol is that for any pair of opposites, even in one extreme there are still some aspects of the other.

Since everything is part of the Dao, this means that distinctions between things are just illusions caused by our inability to perceive the whole Dao at once.  This includes the distinction between good and evil.  Zhuangzi claims that trying to do right and avoid wrong “is like saying that you are going to make Heaven your master and do away with Earth, or make Yin your master and do away with Yang. Obviously it is impossible.”

Zhuangzi sometimes describes the Dao as a principle that governs the way things change.  It itself does not change, but everything else is subject to the “wheel of Heaven,” a cycle of birth, growth, decay, and death that all things pass though.  It applies to everything, including seasons, the lives of individuals, and dynasties.  Zhuangzi believes that it also applies to moral principles, which means that what is currently moral will decay and become immoral, and what is immoral will be reborn and grow into the new moral norm.  Put differently, he thinks that right and wrong are determined by people’s opinions, and opinions are destined to change.  Thus, nothing is objectively good or bad, since each has the power to turn into the other.

Let’s contrast that with Christianity for a moment.  Christianity says that even though everything that is created is subject to change, ethics is rooted in God’s character, which does not change.  Unlike the Dao, which includes everything and does not distinguish between things, God clearly distinguishes right from wrong by giving His people a moral law and sending prophets to evaluate how well they did in keeping it.

Yet these distinctions are not arbitrary choices on God’s part; they reflect who He is.  Lying is wrong because God always speaks the truth.  People should love each other because God exists as three persons who love each other, and yet are one.  Murder is wrong because people are made in God’s image, so an attack on people is effectively an attack on God.  Since God deserves to not be harmed, so do people.  Thus, rather than transcending morality by incorporating both good and evil, the Christian God is inextricably connected with morality.  In fact, for something to be good means that it conforms to God’s character.

On a practical level, Zhuangzi is not consistent with his own denial of absolute morality.  He criticizes the Confucianists for replacing the Dao with manmade rules, and says that people should not pursue wealth or status but should try to follow the Dao.  However, these points contradict his other claims, which I see as a problem within his philosophy itself.  (It’s also a problem with other philosophies that deny objective morality.  Even the staunchest relativist will get mad if you plagiarize their work, for example.)  Maybe Zhuangzi sees these as recommendations, not absolute moral rules, but the strength with which he denounces his opponents suggests otherwise.  I view the issue of morality as Daoism’s single biggest weakness, as well as its most significant difference from Christianity.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Christ is Lifted on High

Mr. Spicer, the choir director at my home church, First Church of Christ, is very aware of the church calendar.  Even when the rest of the church didn’t even notice that it was, All Saints’ Sunday, for example, he would choose hymns and anthems appropriate to the occasion.  This, combined with the fact that my mother grew up Lutheran, has given me a sense of appreciation for the church year.

A few weeks ago, I received the best voicemail message ever.  It was from Mr. Spicer, asking me to write lyrics for a hymn about the Ascension that would go to the tune Personent Hodie.  (The reason it was the best message ever was that he accompanied what he was saying with appropriate music from the organ, such as Pomp and Circumstance when he mentioned that I was graduating.)

Ascension Sunday was yesterday, so we sang the hymn in church.  It’s always gratifying to hear my words with the melodies that they were intended to go with.  But the best part was the way the lyrics interacted with the sermon.  After some thought and prayer, I had decided to focus on the Ascension as proof of Jesus’ kingship and glory.  Amazingly, our pastor had independently prepared a sermon based on Daniel 7:9-14 that focused on Christ being king of all, and especially of the Church.  It sounded like the hymn had been written to match the sermon, or vice versa.  In fact, I am sure that the similarity was not the result of our planning but of the Holy Spirit working through both of us.

Here are the lyrics to the hymn:

Christ is Lifted on High

Christ is lifted on high.
Angel hosts glorify
Him who once came to die,
Rose alive and glorious,
Over death victorious

All creation sings
To the King of Kings
Joy will shine; love divine
Soon will rule the nations

Lifted up from our sight,
Up to sit at God’s right
He will rule with God’s might.
Sin and evil cower,
Conquered by His power.


Christ is King, all must know.
In His strength we must go.
To the world we must show
His true saving story:
Death and life and glory.


He shall come from on high,
Breaking down every lie
Heaven and earth glorify
Him who rules the nations,
Savior of Creation.


Saturday, June 4, 2011

Wrong vs. Stupid

I’m going to take a break from my comments on Daoism to discuss something that concerns me about some personal interactions I had.  The interactions are not necessarily recent, but I drew the conclusion only recently.

The first interaction took place during a summer internship.  I was having a discussion with an intern I’ll call Mary (not her real name) about another intern, who was a devout Catholic.  Mary commented that the other intern seemed to think that Protestantism was wrong, which made her feel awkward.  (Mary knew I was a Protestant.)

Me:  Well, I’d hope he doesn’t believe Protestantism; if he did he shouldn’t be Catholic.

Mary: But I think he doesn’t just think Catholicism is right for him; he seems to think it’s right for everybody.

Me:  I’m sure he does think that, but it doesn’t offend me that he thinks I’m wrong.  I’d only be offended if he thought I was stupid or didn’t respect me.

Mary:  But how is it possible to think someone’s religion is wrong and not disrespect them?

Mary and I had talked about my belief in absolute truth in religion before, but it seemed like she still didn’t understand my position.  I thought for a moment about what I knew about Mary.  She was politically conservative but very open-minded and regularly read books she disagreed with to see what she could learn from them.

Me:  It’s the same way you might respect someone who’s a socialist.  You think they’re wrong in their political views, but they may otherwise be really smart, and you might even be able to learn from them in other areas.  Similarly, I can think someone is wrong about religion without thinking they’re completely stupid.

A look of comprehension dawned on Mary’s face, and she said, “Oh, that makes sense.”

In contrast to Mary, I have another friend who I’ll call Brian (not his real name either).  Brian has a tendency to get into arguments with people on the internet.  Before I go on, I should admit that online discussion boards scare me.  They tend to quickly turn into heated arguments that go around in circles while both sides rehash the same arguments and neither side actually listens to what the other says.  I realize that this is not true of everyone on these sites, but there are enough angry, argumentative people to stress me out and convince me to use my time another way.

Brian, like Mary, is politically conservative, but he tends to have more or less the opposite attitude toward those who disagree with him.  He tends to take his political and religious views very seriously, and unfortunately becomes overly upset by the people he argues with.  Although he is very nice under most circumstances, when political or religious issues come up, he sometimes turns into one of those angry, argumentative people who turned me off of internet discussions in the first place.

In defense of Brian, his argumentativeness is caused by a commitment to truth.  He believes that his views are true and that false beliefs have negative consequences.  More importantly, he sees the arguments for his views as conclusive, which he thinks means that people who disagree with him are denying the facts, either out of stupidity or just from blindly believing what they have been told.

Even though their actions were completely different, I think Brian and Mary ultimately made the same mistake.  They both failed to separate the issues we were discussing from the people who held opposing views.  They concluded that, at least in dealing with certain issues, thinking someone was wrong meant thinking they were stupid.  Mary was so concerned with respecting people that she was unwilling to think they were wrong.  Brian was so concerned with the truth that he said they were wrong and then concluded that they were stupid.

I think there should be a middle way in relating to people.  We need to recognize that even smart people occasionally make mistakes, and sometimes even make mistakes about very important things.  I think we need to address those mistakes and confront the people who make them, but we can’t afford to forget that there is a reason that religion and politics are some of the most divisive topics of conversation.  They are very important but also very complicated.  The people we are talking to may simply have overlooked, or not been exposed to, an argument.  We should have the humility to recognize that we might be wrong and the grace to recognize that other intelligent, intellectually honest people may also be wrong.  As my father says, “I’m absolutely sure that my theology is wrong on some points.  I’m just waiting to find out which points those are.”

On the other hand, these issues are important, and there is a true answer.  Knowing the truth is important, so if you believe that your view is true, the most loving thing you can do for someone is to show that to them.  Just make sure your tone and attitude show that you are acting out of concern for them, not hostility or arrogance.  Otherwise no one will be convinced, either because they won’t know what you believe or because they’ll be so turned off by your attitude that they won’t take you seriously.