As I have mentioned, I have no religion. At best I am a spiritual humanist, who teeters on the brink between Deism and Agnosticism. I have, over the course of my life and my college studies, struggled with the concept of organized, doctrinal religion and the dogma that typically comes attached to it. Nevertheless, while I have come to reject religion, though I maintain a sense of faith, I still find religion, from Christianity to Zoroastrianism and everything in between, fascinating. For better of for worse religion, in all of its many forms, has had a profound impact on the course of human history; and, for that reason, it deserves our respect, careful study, and understanding.
This is one of the reasons why I study it, as an aspiring historian I recognize that of all of our various social constructs, religion has been the most destructive, the most inspiring, and the most pervasive. Religion has been used as tools of manipulation, oppression, and war. Religion has been the inspiration for most of the world’s most iconic and beautiful pieces of art, literature, and music; it has been the source of inspiration for many early scientists to study the natural world, and it has moved people to revolt for social reform. Religion, from the philosophical to the doctrinal, can be found in every society throughout recorded, and possibly even pre-recorded, human history.
It is this latter observation about religion that has lead me to Religious Studies in college, in addition to studying history. Prior to college, as I first began to question my religion, which was evangelical Christianity, I had read a few books about other religions, and was fascinated by how many common streams flowed throughout each one, such as those that are shared between Taoism and Judeo-Christianity.
The basic principles of Taoism – the Tao is everything, everything has its time and place and to do without acting for self satisfaction- have a lot in common with the basic principles found in Judeo-Christian teachings. I am in no way saying that Taoist traditional is identical to Judeo-Christian tradition, only that they share similar principles.
In Judeo-Christian tradition, God is everything, everything is from God, and everything has a purpose made by God from the beginning; for example, Ecclesiastes 3 ,“there is a time for everything, and a season for every action under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to sow and a time to reap, a time to cry and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance…” and Romans 1:20, “for since the beginning of creation God’s invisible qualities have been seen, being understood from what has been made.” This is similar to Taoist teaching in that there is a natural order which flows from the Tao to all things: the sun shines in the morning and the moon at night; spring, summer, autumn, and winter each have a purpose and come when the time is appropriate: “The way of nature is clear to anyone who looks.”
Taoism teaches that trying to bend, mold, or force the Tao to our will only hurts us in the long run, and that desire can lead to our separation from the Tao. According to chapter 1 of the Tao Te Ching one should free oneself from desire and “live within the mystery of creation…” when one becomes caught up in desire all one will see is the manifestations of that desire. In chapter 74 we are taught that when one tries to take the “Master Carpenter’s place” and use “the Master Carpenter’s tools” one only cuts one’s own hand. These are concepts which are also taught in the Bible; for example Romans 1:25-26 when people “exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the created thing rather than the creator…God gave them over to their shame…and they received in themselves the penalty for perversion.” According to both the Tao Te Ching and the Bible, when one lives against that which is pure and natural one is left to suffer for those choices, but when one follows the flow, the path, the way, one finds peace. Of course, what is considered pure and natural is a matter of debate; however, the basic principles remain the same.
Taoist teaching also emphasizes the importance of wisdom over knowledge. Wisdom comes from experience and observation of natural order, it shows us when to act and when to follow; whereas knowledge is the memorization of facts and statistics which force us to dissect and analyze the Tao, reducing it to unrecognizable fragments strewn about until life loses all meaning and joy. This idea is also supported in Ecclesiastes 7:12 “wisdom preserves the life of its possessor.” Knowledgeable people run about talking all the time, puffing themselves up like a hot-air balloon, showing off their knowledge to all who will listen. Chapter 5 of the Tao Te Ching has this to say about such people, “the mouth becomes exhausted if you talk too much. Better to keep your thoughts inside of you.” And Proverbs 10:19 in the Bible tells them, “The more you talk, the more you are likely to sin. If you are wise, you will keep quiet.” Both the Tao Te Ching and the Bible teach that true wisdom comes when one lives in harmony with the natural order.
Taoist teaching also emphasizes the value of humility, as does that of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Chapter 76 of the Tao Te Ching says that those who are soft and yielding will thrive, a concept also taught in the Bible; for example, Psalms 37:11 “the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace,” and Matthew 5:5 “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” Through humility, not pride, one finds comfort; by acting without selfish endeavors one will succeed.
Though I cannot help but find the similarities between Taoist principles and Judeo-Christian principles to be quite interesting; what I most respect and appreciate about their common streams is what they can teach us about our place in the world and what they imply: that everything is connected, that peace and happiness come from living within the natural flow of things, from which everything comes and to which everything goes. This a drastically different idea than that which we have been taught in the western world, especially in America where what is good or real or beautiful is that which is most useful; whereas, in the common streams, everything is good and real and beautiful because everything is everything else.
We, in the western world especially, treat life as if it is a race only to reach the finish line and realize we should have walked instead of ran. We spend so much time worrying and working only to miss out on the things that truly matter and, as a result, never seem to be happy with the fruits of our labor. We see everything in terms of how it can be used for personal gain, as a result we pollute the earth and create drastic disparities in income thus creating a society in which people are valued by how much they own rather than for the sheer fact that they are living, breathing, feeling humans. Perhaps we would do ourselves some good to wade a bit in the common streams and reevaluate the things we value.