Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Lao Zi: closet atheist, or God-fearing Republican?

In Return of the King, J. R.R. Tolkien tells how the future king, Aragorn, challenges long-fallen warrior ghosts who live in caves under a mountain to regain the honor they lost when they deserted Gondor in its long ago hour of need, by now going to battle against the armies of Mordor.  They follow his lead, and save the city of Minas Tirish from orcs, trolls, and assorted other misguided humanoids. 

That, in essence, is what religious disputants always do: recruit the ancient dead to fight present battles.  Thus Stoics made Socrates their hero and example of how a person should live.  Zhuang Zi cited "Confucius" to prove the wisdom of Taoist philosophy.  Jesus said he came "not to abolish, but to fulfill" the Jewish Law and Prophets. 

New Atheists similiarly try to "preserve religious capital" (as sociologist Rodney Stark puts it) by appealing to great figures of the past in their contest with the hosts issuing out of Mordor-of-the-Bible-Belt.  This can be done in two ways: by claiming that past villains, like Adolf Hitler, were really closet Christians (thus getting evil ghosts in effect to fight on the right side this time), or by recruiting past heroes like Thomas Jefferson to buckle up those one supposes they would still dislike today. 

One hero some Gnus would love to recruit against religion, is the ancient Chinese sage, Lao Zi. 

In the case of Lao Zi, though, I think it is more like the evil SPECTRE-like institution NICE in C. S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength, which wants the magician Merlin back from the Dark Ages, not knowing that he was really a Christian and on the side of freedom.  If Lao Zi were to visit us from the 5th Century BC, I think he would be (a) a theist, (b) a Christian, and (c) a convervative, Tea-Party Republican, if not a Libertarian. 

You can read the Dao De Jing for yourself in an hour or so, and see what I mean.  There are many versions on-line.  Be careful which one you pick, though, because there are some really bad ones, out there. 

I. Was Lao Zi an atheist?  Recently, in one of John Loftus' threads, in which John either quotes me in support or disagreement, it's hard to tell, and I was trying to respond, one of the local skeptics tried to disparage Christianity, and "faith" in general, by citing Lao Zi:

Well, what does the Tao Te Ching say?  Here:  "Religion is the end of love and honesty, the beginning of confusion: Faith is a colorful hope or fear, the origin of folly" Lao Tzu

As a China scholar, that caught my eye. 

First of all, I noticed that the skeptic was using the old Wade-Giles phoneticization, which tells you he's probably a bit out of touch.  In modern pinyin spelling, the book is the Dao De Jing, and its author, Lao Zi.

And what is this "faith is a colorful hope or fear?"  What is that gibberish supposed to mean?  They could be tiresome writers in other ways, but the ancient Chinese seem to have been innocent of that kind of bad syntax.  And whatever else Lao Zi was, he was a master of language. 

Knowing the DDJ pretty well, I knew that "religion" was never critiqued in that manner, and that "faith" () is, as in all classical Chinese texts, thought a good thing, the quality of loyalty and being reliable, not something one rightly scoffs at. 

So I googled the phrase, and found that it is not a translation at all, but an "interpretation" by one Peter A. Merel of DDJ 38.  I also found that other skeptics had picked up on this version of the DDJ which disrespects "religion." 

One web site put it this way:

There are many ways of translating the Dao De Jing. The selections here are drawn from an interpolation of various translations by Peter A. Merel based upon the translations of: Lin Yutang, Ch'u Ta-Kao, Gia-Fu Fen and Jane English, Richard Wilhelm and Aleister Crowley.

What is an "interpolation of various translations?"  Is that like Fusion cuisine?  Neither one nor the other, I will spew it out of my mouth? 

Search "Peter Merel," and you see a lot of the word "interpolation."  Most of the people using the word seem to think it is a synonym for "interpret," but actually:

interpolate 1. To introduct (additions, comments, interpretations, etc) into a discourse, process, or series; also, to insert (unacknowledged additions) in order to falsify a text.

So Merel is being honest, sort of. 

And it's not enough that it's an "interpolation," this here selection is "drawn from" an "interpolation."  What do you get when you "draw a selection" from a falsified text?  Unmitigated hooey, if you don't know what the word "interpolation" means.  Maybe a satire, if you do.

Indeed, it turns out Merel is author of a book called the Dude De Jing.  This book is supposed to interpret the Dao De Jing accoring to the philosophy of the Big Lebowski. 

Maybe there are parallels between the movie and the book. I haven't seen that movie, but Forrest Gump is a great Taoist film, as is Star Wars, in places.  I suspect deliberately and I could also "interpolate" some strong parallels into, say, A River Runs Through It

So Merel may not be to blame for the seriousness with which some atheists take his "translation."  But the seriousness begins even with Amazon reviews:

I love the movie and am amused to see how "The Dude" has become an archetype of sorts for the "Take it Easy" approach. That aside I am also somewhat familiar with the Tao Te Ching. To see these two thrown together, I thought was going to be at best a cheesy homage to the movie. However, I was astonished to see how well the spirit of the Tao Te Ching is actually captured using the story and the characters from the film. My compliments to the Church of the Latter Day Dude for for doing an absolute bang up job.

But here, let us allow Lao Zi to be Lao Zi, and let us see what he actually says in the passage cited above. 

II.  Here's DDJ 38 in Chinese.  Don't let it scare you if you don't read Chinese, I'll explain below:


The word "interpolated" as "religion" by Merel, or whomever he was relying on (I'm sure it wasn't Lin Yutang, he was never so clumsy, though he could be a little anachronistic) lies in the middle of the third line, 禮, pronounced li ("lee") in modern Chinese.

Li means ritual. It loosely corresponds, in the dissordered world of the late Zhou, to the developed Pharisaic Law that Jesus criticized, for much the same reason.  

The passage is about true virtue, which is not ostentatious, yet establishes its goals through humility and without force.  Lao Zi contrasts "higher" virtue, kindness, righteousness, and ritual, which reveal themselves through their own apparent negation.  It is only when you no longer pretend to be good that goodness reveals itself.  The Dao, the ultimate truth and force behind the cosmos and within the world, by which genuine sages direct their lives, does not exist through ostentatious, noisy virtue.  Outward forms of virtue, the trumpets before the almsgiving, in Jesus' parallel teachings, appear when the reality that they pretend to express has disappeared from the scene. 

It is generally supposed that Confucian moralists are Lao Zi's target, here.  If you read the literature of the period, such as the Book of Rites, you find that Confucian thinkers went overboard in trying to create an ideal society by means of elaborate ritual expressions of virtue: how to wear a hat at a funeral, how to shoot an arrow at a party, how and when to bow to whom. 

Lao Zi held Tian, or Heaven (the late Zhou name for God) in high regard.  There is one famous passage in which he seemed to accuse Heaven of cruelty, but taken as a whole, like Confucius, he seemed to trust God and assume his goodness.  The term he used most often for the Supreme Being (though this is controversial -- more on this in print before long, hopefully) was Dao, The Way.  Dao still means "road" in Chinese and Japanese, a meaning it had carried already for many centuries by the time of Lao Zi.  But in the earliest classics, it had also attained a metaphysical and moral meaning, which Confucius had also begun to develop: the moral way, the right way to live, the path to civilizational prosperity.  In the Dao De Jing, the Dao becomes the ultimate moral force, which is eternal, beyond Nature, unique, desires that we do good, and seeks the well-being and even forgivenesss of humanity.  It is how a person lives who becomes a Sage.

This chapter also talks about the Dao, and what happens when people replace God with mere "goodness" or proper action. 

It is, therefore, a far more deeply "religious" and even Christian passage than the attitude it criticizes. 

The snippet "translated" above is the following:


This actually means something like, "As for ritual, it is how faithfulness is manifest in a superficial manner, and is the source of (political) chaos."

By contrast, the Sage trusts the Dao in a true and deep manner, bringing social harmony, as Lao Zi explains in a variety of ways throughout his great work.  So it would be extremely simple-minded to cast Lao Zi as a critic of "religion" or "faith."  It would be a lot like thinking Jesus came to abolish rather than perfect Jewish religion, because he criticized the Pharisees. 

The other "interpolation" from the skeptic I found citing the "Dude De Jing" is the following strange phrase:


Which our skeptic tells us means:

Faith is a colorful hope or fear, the origin of folly.

Legge, a real translator, in fact one of the great translators, renders this phrase into something close to the opposite sentiment:

Swift apprehension is (only) a flower of the Tao, and is the beginning of stupidity.

Legge has to interpret a bit, here: Lao Zi implies that he is criticizing the one who (pretends to) understand quickly, yet also credits him with the "flower" of the Dao.  Given the whole passage, Legge's interpretation seems reasonable.  The person who too quickly thinks he has things figured out, has grasped only the gaudy apparent or surface truth, not the mature fruit that humility allows to slowly mature in heart of one who seeks the Way. 

Certainly, there is nothing about "faith" in this passage, still less about the colors of emotions. 

This passage can actually be read as a critique of "interpolators," and those who cite Lao Zi as a skeptic on atheist web pages. 

III.  If Lao Zi was not an atheist, was he a God-fearing Republican? 

Well yes, he was.  Maybe even a libertarian.  Certainly, a small-government, Tea Party "don't tread on me" conservative in philosophy, even if in practice rather than protesting, he might have moved to Alaska and bought a small fishing boat. 

One with a wry smile, though, and a paradoxical hope for top-down government reform, once the First Dude learned to mellow out and do nothing, like Calvin Coolridge. 

Now I'm interpolating, a little. 

But read the text for yourself -- in a good translation or two -- and see on which side, in contemporary debates, you perceive this ghost, riding off to war on an old ox with no weapons to hand, may be fighting, or rather in which direction he might be leading us all.


Crude said...

So are you saying Merel's interpretation was Lao Zi?

(I'm not sure the pronunciation is the way it needs to be for that joke to work, but to heck with it, I'm going for it.)

David B Marshall said...

Argh. No, it isn't pronounced that way, thankfully.

Brian Barrington said...

Christianity and Islam teach the salvation of the individual soul in another world that is separate from this world. This is contrary to the spirit of Taoism, which teaches (not unlike Buddhism) that the self should blend in with the natural world and be completely at home in this world.

The Tao is not a transcendent entity or a personal entity. So the Tao is not like the Jewish, Christian or Muslim God. Taoism rejects the kind of dualism that is at the heart of Western monotheism e.g. A distinction between the spiritual world and the material world, the world of minds and material things etc. These distinctions are, according to Taoists, illusions that come from people's inability to comprehend the One, or the Tao, which is ultimately undifferentiated. If the Tao is to be considered God, then it is much more like Spinoza's impersonal, immanent God, than the traditional Christian God.

Brian Barrington said...

The DDJ chap 5 illustrates some of the differences between Taoism and Western monotheism:

"Heaven and Earth are impartial
They regard myriad things as straw dogs
The sages are impartial
They regard people as straw dogs"

In Christianty, God is anything but impartial, and the Christian Sage, Jesus, is also not  impartial and would never regard the people as "straw dogs" since in Christianity every human individual is taken to be an infinitely precious soul.

DDJ "Rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you"

The whole point of Christianity is that this world IS lacking, it is not the soul's true home - the soul's true home, for the Christian, is another world that is separate from this world. In contrast, Taoism is entirely about being completely at home in this world.

This rejection of dualism emphasised by Zhuangzi.

Zhuangzi on the rejection of an afterlife:

"Men say there is no death -- to what avail? The body decomposes, and the mind goes with it. Is this not a great cause for sorrow? Can the world be so dull as not to see this? Or is it I alone who am dull, and others not so? 

Zhuangzi on the  rejection of dualism:
"There is nothing which is not this; there is nothing which is not that ... this is also that and that is also this. This also has its 'right' and 'wrong', and that also has its 'right' and 'wrong'". A fool is someone who wears out his "intellect in an obstinate adherence to the individuality of things, not recognizing the fact that all things are One." The Sage "blends everything into one harmonious whole, rejecting the confusion of this and that."

Brian Barrington said...

One more point: the Tao is described as having been in existence BEFORE God, in the last phrase of chap 4 - again, this is completely contrary to Western monotheism, where nothing comes before God. The Tao is also described in female terms, which again puts it at odds with the western monotheisms, where God is decisively seen as male, and as existing separately from, as it were, "mother nature".

One can quibble about translations, but if you look at numerous translations this overall characterisation of Taoism holds up.

David B Marshall said...

Brian: Chapter 5 is an outlier, that isn't even included in the earliest manuscript. A naive interpretation of that passage is contradicted repeatedly by other passages of the DDJ. Few translators even try to interpret the rest of DDJ by chapter 5, and those who do, are clearly wrong.

The Dao is anything but impartial in DDJ as a whole. The Dao cares for humanity, and His Sage sacrifices himself for our redemption. (Even Lin Yutang was shocked by that passage!) This is plain in numerous passages, which atheists naturally tend to overlook in their eagerness to project a naive reading of DDJ 5 on the text as a whole.

Your interpretation of DDJ 4 is quite clearly wrong. The word sometimes translated as "God" in chapter 4 is "Di."


Here you have some excuse: James Legge normally translates this word "God" all through the Five Classics, and that is a viable translation most of the time.

But the term had gone out of use that way by the time of the DDJ. It's never used directly in the Analects: Tian is the usual word for God. Legge assumes the traditional belief that Lao Zi was an older contemporary of Confucius, but it is certain that he was actually rather later. Nor is it used elsewhere in DDJ. By that time, "Di" had degenerated into a more polytheistic sense, parallel to "shen" in some cases -- the "di" of the four directions, etc. This may be one reason Lao Zi used the term "Dao" for the Supreme Being.

I am tempted to do a full exegesis of DDJ, and explain the various possible interpretations, and how it should fit into Lao Zi's book as a whole. (If it wasn't a later addition.) Maybe I'll reproduce that part of my dissertation in a post, later on; after I figure out how copyright would work, for publication.

toddes said...

Can you recommend "a good translation or two"? Thank you.

David B Marshall said...

As for Zhuang Zi, notice what Zi Lai says on his deathbed, in The Great and Honored Master:

"Zi-lai replied, 'Wherever a parent tells a son to go, east, west, south, or north, he simply follows the command. The Yin and Yang (constituent elements of the Dao -- DM) are more to a man than his parents are. If they are hastening my death, and I do not quietly submit to them, I shall be obstinate and rebellious. There is the great Mass (of nature);-- I find the support of my body in it; my life is spent in toil on it; my old age seeks ease on it; at death I find rest on it: what has made my life a good will make my death also a good. Here now is a great founder, casting his metal. If the metal were to leap up (in the pot), and say, "I must be made into a (sword like the) Mo-ye," the great founder would be sure to regard it as uncanny. So, again, when a form is being fashioned in the mould of the womb, if it were to say, "I must become a man; I must become a man," the Creator would be sure to regard it as uncanny. When we once understand that heaven and earth are a great melting-pot, and the Creator a great founder, where can we have to go to that shall not be right for us? We are born as from a quiet sleep, and we die to a calm awaking.'"

What this looks like, is uncertainty about the afterlife, but not skepticism, rather calm trust in "the Creator."

I'm not "quibbling about translations," also, I'm debunking a fraudulent translation, based on the original, and scholarly discussion of the original.

The Dao is, in fact, good and not evil, loving and not hateful, redeeming and personal. I hope this doesn't take the edge off your appreciation of these two great thinkers. I think Lao Zi's deccription of the Dao as female adds to the Christian understanding of God, which also occasionally depicts Him as a Mother. I think there's a lot that both Christians and secular humanists can gain from Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi.

David B Marshall said...

Toddes: Lin Yutang, Lau, John Wu, and Arthur Waley all seemed pretty good, as I recall. Chen Guying tries to force DDJ into a materialistic worldview, and does violence to many passages. JJL Duyvendak gives a rather Christian translation, "Tian" as "God," etc, which is I think much more viable, but prejudices the text somewhat. I don't remember my overall impression of Wing-tsit Chan -- some differences, but he's a famous and accomplished scholar. Late translations like Moss Roberts make use of later archeological discoveries. Legge is still worth consulting for very careful, if stodgy, direct translations.

David B Marshall said...

While I'm recommending books, let me recommend Yuan Zhiming's Lao Tzu and the Bible. This has been newly translated, written originally in 1996, and raised a stir. I haven't read the English version, but the translator seems to be a skilful scholar. I think Yuan gets a little carried away at times, but his main two arguments are worth reading, along with the evidence he cites to back them up.

Brian Barrington said...

I agree that translating li as religion is a stretch, but not as much of a stretch as you are making out. Rituals and ceremonies are integral to all organised religion. By dissing ritual, Laozi is dissing organised religion and orthodox religion. Now, Taoism did develop into a kind of religion after Laozi, but it is a notably flexible, non-doctrinaire religion, especially when compared to western monotheistic religions.

Chap 1 of the DDJ says that Heaven and Earth are both manifestations of the Tao - and that those whose perception is perverted by desire (and by words) see only these varying and opposing manifestations - they do not see the truth, which is that the Tao is One, undifferentiated being, and utterly immanent. Chap 2 emphasises the point by rejecting the dualism between good and evil, and between ugliness and beauty. The whole point of chapter two is to undermine and dissolve dualisms. Again, all of this is alien to western monotheism, as well as to western philosophy in its Platonic form.

"This is plain in numerous passages."

Which passages?

Brian Barrington said...

If we look at Z's opinions about his own death and burial, it really is difficult to see him propounding any firm belief in a personal afterlife. The prominent feeling is one of very strong scepticism. He is certainly NOT afraid to die himself, but that is because he is a Sage without desires who accepts reality as it is, not because he has any firm belief in an afterlife. Nature, so to speak, commands that his life should end, and since Z lives in accordance with nature, he does not hate death - life entails death, so to hate death is to hate life.

When Zhuangzi was about to die, his disciples wanted to bury him in a well-appointed tomb. Zhuangzi said, ''I have the sky and the earth for inner and outer coffins, the sun and the moon for jade disks, the stars for pearls and the ten thousand things for farewell gifts. Isn't the paraphernalia for my burial adequate without adding anything?"
''We are afraid the crows and kites will eat you master," a disciple said.
"Above ground, I will be eaten by crows and kites; below ground by ants. You are robbing from the one to give to the other. Why play favourites?"

There is no indication that he exists as a soul, apart from his body - if anything he is just a fragment of the Tao, a fragment of the Total Reality, to which he is now returning. This is more like Buddhist Nirvana than it is like Christian or Muslim heaven.

David B Marshall said...

Sorry, Brian, but again, you're reading stuff into the DDJ.

Literally, DDJ 1 says:

"Way that can be spoken -- not the true Way.

"Name that can be named -- not the true Name.

"Not having -- one names the beginning of Heaven and Earth.

"Having -- one names the Mother of all things."

And then, verse 4 & 5:

"These two, emerge together but are given different names, yet can together be called mysterious.

"Mystery of mysteries, the gate of all wonder."

So having and not having, or grasping and not grasping, which characterize the paradoxical Dao, originate Heaven and Earth. Heaven and Earth can be called "manifestations" of the Dao, then, but in a sense little different than "The Earth is full of the Glory of God." In fact there are many parallel passages in the Bible, including the Psalms. Dao is both imminent and transcendent, as is God.

Lao Zi is dissing Confucianism as manifest in some passages of the Book of Rites, etc. This is similiar to what Jesus said about Pharisaic religion. Far from dissing faith in God in general, he is encouraging it.

You also misread DDD 2. Read the whole book, and you find that Lao Zi is thoroughly on the side of good, against evil. He criticizes superficial, gaudy, forceful, and arrogant displays of virtue, not virtue itself. So even DDJ 2 says, the Sage "teaches without words:" it is not that he has nothing to say, but that his lesson is humble, visual, even incarnational and self-sacrificial. This fits the book as a whole. It also fits what Isaiah says about the Suffering Servant: "He openned not his mouth."

Verses 4 and 5 emphasize that the sagely path does, in fact, result in success, and a lasting success, rather than an ephermal one. No better portrait of these two paths could be painted, and where they lead, than the lives of Alexander the Great, on the one hand, and Jesus of Nazareth, on the other.

David B Marshall said...

I agree that Zhuang Zi downplayed the importance of death, and is represented in these ways. Two things are to be said: (1) In the passage I already cited, ZZ clearly explains that calm by his trust in The Creator. (2) Daoists in general were not able to live up to this attitude, perhaps because they lacked ZZ's trust in the Creator. Therefore Daoism became focused on ways of avoiding death -- causing great trouble, satirized for instance in Journey to the West.

Please see my article from Touchstone comparing Zhuang Zi with the Stoic Epictetus, posted here a few weeks ago. I admire both men greatly. But most people, including especially most Chinese who thought of themselves as Daoists, need more concrete hope beyond death.

Brian Barrington said...

"Most Chinese who thought of themselves as Daoists, need more concrete hope beyond death." Well, I think this more-or-less concedes the point - the reason they do not have more concrete hope beyond death is because the two founding texts of Taoism do NOT give them much concrete hope - in fact, the two great texts of philosophical Taoism give them remarkably little in the way of concrete hope, especially when compared to the New Testament or the Koran. Conversely, there is no fear of Hell in Taoism either. It is much more Thisworldly.

The Book of Z is noticeable for its irreverent, questioning attitude towards the so-called Creator, at times mocking him outright: "Verily the Creator is great!" said the sick man. "See how He has doubled me up." His back was so hunched that his viscera were at the top of his body. His cheeks were level with his navel, and his shoulders were higher than his neck. His neck bone pointed up towards the sky. The whole economy of his organism was deranged, but his mind was calm as ever. He dragged himself to a well, and said, "Alas, that God should have doubled me up like this!"

David B Marshall said...

Brian: Verse by verse, I'll help you learn to read, if it takes me three kalpas.

I've already cited the passage you are quoting here, above. Read the whole story. It is largely about faith in God. You're selecting a few snippets out -- like picking out a few words from Job's lamentations, and representing Job as a skeptic. Very naughty of you. Exactly what we are fighting against, here.

Brian Barrington said...

"Far from dissing faith in God in general, he is encouraging it. "

I don't think there is much textual evidence to back up this claim. He is not talking about "faith" in the Tao - there is nothing about how you must "believe" this or that, as in the Bible. The Tao is not really presented as having the characteristics of personhood. 

Virtue for the Taoists consists more in resignation to reality, in acceptance, than in belief in anything positive. It consists in the annihilation of desire (and even the self) rather than in the satisfaction of the desire for personal immortality. Wisdom for the Taoist is more about letting go of hope than about embracing hope. It really is not unlike Buddhism, and it's not a coincidence that Taoism and Buddhism became somewhat synthesised in, for example, Chan Buddhism and Zen Buddhism.

But we at least agree that everyone has a lot to learn from reading these remarkable books!

David B Marshall said...

Brian: The Dao IS present as having "the characteristics of personhood," clearly and repeatedly.

Nor does Lao Zi anywhere say that death is the end -- in fact, he seems to hint that it is not, though this is no more than a hint.

I've already shown at numerous points how your reading is out of sync with the actual text. Can you acknowledge that? Or are you too attached (here your Buddhist friends might help) to your reading?

There is room for disagreement on interpretting DDJ, but Yuan makes a very good case from numerous passages, that Dao is personal. There are also historical reasons he fails to mention, that further support that case. Zen does arise from both Taoism and Buddhism, but that doesn't mean they were the same thing. The Taoists contributed the Zen sense of humor. Interesting book by a Chinese Zen teacher: The Zen Teachings of Jesus.

Brian Barrington said...

Well, the great Taoist texts are a lot more ambiguous than the founding texts of the Western monotheistic religions. There is a lot less clarity in the Taoist texts. But that ambiguity is part of their essence and it supports my overall point - they are less doctrinaire and less dogmatic, allowing for a wider variety of interpretations.

But if you compare the two-world dualism and the talk of an afterlife in another world that is UNAMBIGUOUSLY found in for example Plato's dialogues, the OT, the NT and the Koran with what is found in L and Z, then the difference is obvious. The personhood of God in the monotheistic scriptures is also incontestable.

Regarding the afterlife, the best we have come up with in the original Taoist texts is one reference in Z to being "awake". In the context of his other remarks on the topic this does not amount to much, especially if we consider what is generally meant by "Awakeness" ( I.e. Enlightenment) in Eastern philosophies. Enlightenment or salvation does NOT typically consist of personal immortality - if anything it means the opposite I.e. the overcoming of the illusion that there is any self I.e. The overcoming of any distinction between "self" and "other", the annihilation of the ego-self via the overcoming of all personal desire. This is "Salvation" for them - complete oneness with the world, and the letting go of the self. Anyone who overcomes the illusion of the self is enlightened and liberated, and hence not afraid of the self dying, since the self has already been overcome.

I suspect it is you who are a bit too eager to identify the Tao with the Christian God. Not that I necessarily object to attempts to find common ground between Christianity and Taoism - it's just that doing so is likely to modify orthodox Christianity at least as much, if not more so, than it modifies Taoism.

Crude said...

Not that I necessarily object to attempts to find common ground between Christianity and Taoism - it's just that doing so is likely to modify orthodox Christianity at least as much, if not more so, than it modifies Taoism.

David makes - in what I've read so far - a powerful case that the Tao was personal as conceived by Taoists, and can reasonably be identified as the God of western theism. That's finding ground, sure. But it's not modification, and does not require any modification, on either end.

That's the point of 'finding common ground'. If you modify what you or another person believes in order to believe the same thing, you're not finding common ground. You're doing something else.

Not to mention, what constitutes 'enlightenment' has multiple diverging views in the east - but 'oneness with the world'? Putting aside the prevalence of an afterlife even in buddhist faiths, being 'one with the world' isn't the clear goal. Escaping the world at all costs and/or transcending it? That's closer to the mark.

I've never seen the buddhist sentiment posed as 'Wow, the world is great! If only there were some way to become even more a part of the world than I am now!' Rather the opposite.

David B Marshall said...

That one reference isn't all we have, it's all I've quoted. And of course the Taoist texts are shorter. Rightly understood, they are part of a body of literature that included the Classics, especially the Book of Poetry and Book of History -- which say a bit more.

Granted, some ancient Chinese sages were probably less certain of the afterlife than St. Paul. But Paul had witnessed the risen Christ. This is not contradiction, it is new information. OT writers often were hazy on the afterlife, too.

There are no such things as "eastern philosophies." That's a projection by Westerners. Again, you're conflating China with India. Not permissable. Some great Chinese scholars in the 20th Century, like Hu Shi and Lin Yutang, saw the import of Buddhism as a radically foreign and harmful innovation. Lin Yutang seemed to mellow on the latter point.

When you've read Yuan's argument, or mine, you can judge whether they are successful or not. Having judged that, you can raise suspicions about motivation. Right now, with all due respect, you don't know the basic facts. I appreciate your interest in the great sages, and you've raised some valid points, but you're not yet in a position to evaluate my claims, whatever our respective motives might be.

Brian Barrington said...

David, the writers in the OT certainly are often hazy about the afterlife - the main reason I would mention the OT here is that the God of the OT is undeniably a free personality - a conscious character who makes decisions, has volition, speaks, gets angry, gets jealous, is concerned with humans and what they think of him and so on. 

It is not, in fact, at all clear that the Tao as portrayed by L and Z has these sorts of characteristics, and you haven't actually made an argument that it does. 

Brian Barrington said...

Crude, Enlightenment is frequently taken to involve perceiving all things as a unity, where the self is not differentiated from or seen as separate from the rest of reality.

As the Upanishads say: "He who sees all beings in his own Self and his own Self in all beings, loses all fear. When a Sage sees this great Unity and his Self has become all beings, what delusion and what sorrow can ever be near him?"

Chapter 13 of the DDJ says:

"The greatest misfortune is the self ...
What does "the greatest misfortune is the self" mean?

The reason I have great misfortune
Is that I have the self
If I have no self
What misfortune do I have?

So one who values the self as the world
Can be given the world
One who loves the self as the world
Can be entrusted with the world."

This is saying the same thing as the Upanishads - overcome the sense of separation between you and the rest of reality.

What Buddhism rejects is DESIRE and the suffering that desire gives rise to, which includes the sense of self, rejected by the Buddha as an illusion in his Sermon on the non-existence of the soul.

Brian Barrington said...

The point on Enlightenment  is probably made clearest by Shankara, the most influential Hindu philosopher: "In you, in me and everywhere, there is but the one Brahman. Mistakenly viewing me with a sense of difference, you are ill-disposed towards me. Try to see in all beings only Brahman who is your own Self. Give up your false and egoistic sense of separateness from other beings. Cultivate a sense of kinship, unity and oneness with all.”

Brahman is conceived by Shankara as impersonal.

David B Marshall said...

Brian: I wouldn't try to squeeze an argument that big into a space this little. I have recommended a book by a Chinese philosopher that goes systematically through the DDJ, quoting it hundreds of times, and argues that the Dao is, in fact, God.

Now it's true, not everyone agrees. But then, not everyone has read his argument.

Of those who have, it is true, there are some scholars and other critics who still disagree. That is why I read their criticisms, both in English and in Chinese, and then spend some 28 pages of my dissertation showing why Yuan is right. In doing so, I rely not only of the text of the DDJ itself (and Zhuang Zi), I also trace the history of the term Dao through Classical and late Zhou literature. I then offer a structural argument in support of Yuan's position: a relationship betweeen DDJ and the Classics on the Dao and the Sage that no one else (in my reading) seems to have pointed out, yet.

You can understand why I wouldn't want to try to copy and paste that here. But maybe I should look for a journal to publish this argument. (My article on "Lin Yutang and the New China" is out in Touchstone this month -- I think you'll like this article, I'll probably publish it here in January or so. Lin is one of the translators of DDJ I recommend.) Meanwhile, if you're interested, read Yuan.

David B Marshall said...

Sigh. I see Brian is citing a translation by one Derek Lin, who appears to have no academic qualifications. (But failing to cite the source, which Lin's Taoist organization requests.) Where did we come in, here?

The term 身 primarily means "body," though it can also mean "self."

The point of the passage you're quoting is NOT the same as that of the Upanishads. DDJ is written, at least in large part, as advice to a ruler on how to rule and gain the kingdom -- through wuwei, inaction or "non-striving."

The key phrase is:


Which your man tranlates, "values the self as the world."

But Legge puts this just the opposite:

"Honouring (the kingdom) as he honours his own person."

A Mainland Chinese translation into modern Chinese renders this more freely:

"If a person is willing to sacrifice himself in service to the people of the world, then you can entrust him with the world."

Which blatantly contradicts your false notion that DDJ is amoral, and also this other bad translation you cite.

Enough of crap translations, already! Haven't you even got that much, yet?

The point of DDJ 13 is just the opposite of the point you were imposing on DDJ earlier in this thread. You were saying that the Dao and the Sage are indifferent -- treat Heaven and Earth and the myriad things as straw.

But here, Lao Zi is repeating the exact teaching Jesus gave. "Love your neighbor" (in this case the whole kingdom) "as yourself."

David B Marshall said...

Note: I can see why Lin might translate that one phrase that way. But given the context, experienced translators generally seem to recognize that Lao Zi is saying that one should love "the world" as he naturally loves himself -- even the Mainland translator, who has probably not even thought of Christianity when he made that translation. Lin Yutang agrees:

"Therefore he who values the world as his self may then be entrusted with the government of the world; And he who loves the world as his self-- the world may be entrusted to his care."

Brian Barrington said...

Chapter 5 and chapter 13 do not contradict each other. Ch 13: the sage, as it were, loves the world, and does not see himself as distinct from the world. If translated as body, then he does not see his body (regarded as his self) as distinct from the world i.e.  it is not his "own" body.

Now, because the Sage sees everything as one, he is also utterly impartial (ch5) - he makes no distinctions between the myriad things, regarding them all as necessary. That is why he is without desire and engages only in actionless-action. And the Tao itself is without desire. The first chapter makes clear that desire is precisely what prevents people from understanding the Tao - because they are blinded by their desires, they see only the manifestations of Tao (I.e. the appearances, as opposed to reality)

Btw, I agree with you that the Tao is God - it is just not a personal God, it is not a conscious being with volition, a mind, desires and so on.

David B Marshall said...

Brian: I've just shown, again, that the translation you used of DDJ 13 is non-standard and directly contradicted by translations given by top-rank scholars. How about acknowledging that fact? That's the pillar you're trying to stand on: it does matter if has big cracks in it, even if it hasn't totally toppled over, yet. (Some do read it a little differently, like Lau.)

DDJ 13 DOES show, along with numerous other passages, that the Sage in touch with Dao cares about "Under Heaven," that is, the people of the civilized world, more or less synonymous with the Zhou cultural sphere, or perhaps all humanity. And yes, that DOES directly contradict the interpretation of DDJ 5 put forward earlier in this thread, indeed the most obvious meaning of the chapter (which may be a late addition) itself. However:

"Read the Sage as ruthless, and one faces challenges throughout the text, as Yuan points out. In 3 and 12, He fills bellies and strengthens bones. In 27, he ‘excels in saving people (聖人常善救人).’ In 52, he brings about the transformation, prosperity, and simplicity of the people. In 52 and 53, the Sage avoids legislation, and thereby creates wealth. In 58, he ‘extends himself but not at the expense of others,’ which directly contradicts R25’s (interpretation of DDJ 5). Ames and Young translate 方而不割 literally: ‘the Sage is square, but does not lacerate others,’ while Chen notes in a footnote that squareness here refers to a ‘cutting’ inflexibility that causes injury. (Chen 1977: 254; Blakney, Lin, Chu Yan, and Gu all recognize that the implied object saved from being cut here is other people, while Lau and Waley leave the implied object of the verb unstated.)

"In 60, again, the Sage ‘does not harm the people.’ In 46, he is a ruler, but does not burden or obstruct his people. The Way of Heaven is like a bow: bend it, and the top comes down and the bottom up, in contrast to the rich who grow wealthy by suppressing the poor. The following chapter compares Sage (and Dao) to water, which overcomes strength by weakness: ‘Therefore the Sage says, “He who accepts the reproach of the nation, is therefore called lord of the sacrifice,”’ and Lord of all under Heaven. In 77, he accomplishes his task without demanding gratitude. In 78, he accepts humiliation for the state. In 81, he does not store up goods for himself: but gives it away, gaining in the end."

So if anything is clear in DDJ, it is that a naive reading of DDJ 5 contradicts the text as a whole. It is clear that both Dao and the Sage do, in fact, strongly intend to benefit humanity, and use skillful, paradoxically "weak" means of doing so -- as water carves a channel through rock.

If you miss this, you miss much of Lao Zi's message.

Brian Barrington said...

Below is a list of 25 translations of chapter 13. The vast majority of translations use "world" or "universe" or something like that. A few use "kingdom" or "empire". With regard to "self" or "body"  it's about half and half - either way it does not change the meaning too much. So what do I really have to acknowledge here?

The DDJ does not claim that the Sage is necessarily ruthless - the sage is free from desire and impartial, and therefore he does not harm others for his own gain. The general sense is that the sage ends up benefiting others precisely because he doesn't explicitly strive or desire to benefit others. That's why ch5 is not in conflict with ch13, or indeed with any of the rest of the text.

David B Marshall said...

That's not the point. The point is whether DDJ 13 is about loving the self (the translation Derek Lin gave), or about loving the world (the translation Legge, Yan, and Lin Yutang give, and that I think fits the context better).

The passages I just cited show explicitly, in many ways, that the Sage DOES intend to benefit others. You can't just wave all those passages away. You mistake Lao Zi's idea of method for goal. The goal is to benefit: the method is subtle, through weakness and apparent inactivity, or by means of self-sacrifice, as water (the metaphor is Lao Zi's) slowly but irresistably wears away rock.

DDJ 5 DOES explicitly appear to portray the Dao and Sage as ruthless - which makes it an outlier. A few scholars (like Chen Guying) take that apparent ruthlessness at face value, and try to interpret the rest of the text by it. The majority recognize that DDJ 5 is anomalous, and therefore offer various explanations for why it is that way, or "what it really means." Given the overall text, and the possibility that DDJ 5 was added later, I think this is the most reasonable thing to do -- also Lao Zi's delight in paradox, and his dislike for fuddy-duddy Confucian moralists. All this make it most probable that DDJ 5 was a jab at narrow-minded Confucian morality, but not at all at the deeper morality Lao Zi himself often recommended. Again, a close parallel to the gospels.

Brian Barrington said...

The distinction between method and goal, between means and ends, is not one that a Taoist would recognise. The Tao (the Way, the Path) is both method and goal. The Sage behaves "naturally" like a river or a flower - he is without desire and without intention. The phrase "the road to hell is paved with good intentions" is one he would readily understand. Now, as a matter of fact the sage does not harm but benefits - but again, that is because he "acts" without striving, without desire and without intent.

Chap5 is part of the Tao Te Ching – its presence needs to be explained rather than explained away. Explaining its presence properly provides a good key to an genuine understanding of the text. In correct interpretations, Chap5 does NOT actually contradict the rest of the text.

Anyway, it has been an interesting discussion but I have probably being droning on for long enough now :-)

Bob Fisher said...

"between means and ends, is not one that a Taoist would recognise."

This is what frightens me about liberals. They seem to have no problem excusing their means,as long as they have specific ends in view.

Thus they might give government the power to regulate speech as long as it pacifies certain Muslim groups for the short term.

Tell me, Brian, are there any cases where you would say that using any means necessary would be immoral, therefore you may not achieve your ends, but it is the moral thing to do not to use "whatever means necessary"?

David B Marshall said...

Brian: You're a couple good steps up from the numbskull I cited in the OP, and your comments thus provide a more "enlightening" foil. But you keep on trying to get away with sloppy stuff, here. We're not talking about "Taoists," an anachronistic term: we're talking about Lao Zi. And it is clear, in several passages that I've already cited, that Wuwei refers in the DDJ to the means, not to the goal. The Sage very definitely intends to do good, not harm, as is clearly and repeatedly expressed by Lao Zi.

Nor is he as original about this as you might assume. The concept of Wuwei has roots in the Classics: Lao Zi's Sage-King is incarnating the similiar goal-oriented "passivity" that had already become an ideal in some threads of Chinese thought, centuries before.

I've already explained why DDJ should not be read through the prism of a naive read of DDJ 5. Four reasons, again. First, it does not even appear in the earliest extant text. Secondly, the naive read is contradicted repeatedly and emphatically elsewhere in the book. Both Dao and the true Sage are clearly represented as intending the good of the people -- in their own, humble, even self-sacrificial manner. Third, Lao Zi loved paradox, especially of this kind: making startling statements that overturn conventional wisdom, even though the truth (as he sees it, and then describes it) incorporates what is right in that conventional wisdom. So DDJ fits that larger pattern. Fourth, even if DDJ 5 was part of the original text, it can easily be explained as a critique of Confucianism.

I can understand, and in some ways respect, your "attachment" to your partial misreading of DDJ. But as a China scholar, I have to ask people to read Chinese literature on its own terms, and not project Upanishadic or Dharmic concepts on Zhou-era Chinese sages. Nor should you be projecting later "Taoist" ideas -- wherever you get them -- on Lao Zi.

Derek said...

Now that the wonderful discussion on Lao Zi is apparently over, I must say, Brian, that your description of Christianity as decidedly "otherworldy" is not correct. Christianity teaches the resurrection of the body and the transformation of THIS world. The world is tainted with sin, but it will be transformed (Rom 8:21). Of course, heaven and earth will be united, and God will be with his people, but our home is this world.

Brian Barrington said...

David, this characterisation of the Taoist sage as someone with no desire comes entirely from the DDJ itself, and from nowhere else. The Sage is described like this over and over again. For example, the last line of chap 37 says that if you are without desire then you are content and all  the World is at peace:

They shall be without desire
Without desire, using stillness
The world shall steady itself.

The last line of chap 57 says the same thing: "I have no desires and the people, all by themselves, become simple and honest."

So the Sage has no desires, is radically carefree, is without intent, is non-attached and is indifferent. The sage does not strive or contend. The sage does not try to do anything.  It is necessary to be like this in order to apprehend the Tao, or the Way or the Path, as is made clear in chap 1: Free from desire, you realize the mystery; Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations. The Tao, in fact, has the same characteristics as the sage.

All of this is entirely consistent with chap 5, which says that sages are impartial. And the result of this impartiality is that the sage does no harm, but benefits.

Brian Barrington said...

Hi Derek, as far as I can work out, some Christians do indeed believe that Heaven for us will be on Planet Earth and in this Universe in the future after Armageddon when the world is perfected by God.

Other Christians (unless I am mistaken) regard heaven as existing beyond or outside this universe that we currently inhabit. They believe that there is another reality that transcends this reality, and that this other world or realm is fundamentally different from this reality. This is where God and Jesus currently reside. When we die we eventually go to this other world.

David, as a Christian, what do you think?

Derek, you appear to be saying that what will happen at Armageddon, is that this world will be united with heaven, which already exists as a separate world, where God and Jesus currently reside? So you do not reject the notion of other worlds per se - what you reject is the notion that this world is not our home? Of course, this world will be fundamentally transformed and altered by its unification with the other world, and it will only then, after this essential transformation, become our true home? Or am I wrong about this?

I also wonder about hell - is hell somewhere else i.e. another world separate from both this world and the heavenly world? 

Brian Barrington said...

Having thought about this a bit I would say the following: as far as I can work out Christianity believes there are worlds other than this world - worlds that are fundamentally and essentially different than this world (I.e. spiritual, even non-physical worlds - especially heaven where God, Jesus and the angels currently reside).  

After all, God consciously CREATED this physical world and this physical reality - so there must be other realities and worlds where God exists or existed, as a conscious, thinking being, before he created this world and this reality. 

Christianity also believes that this earthly world, as currently constituted, is not our true home. Our true home is either a) in heaven, which is another world separate from this world or b) the new world that will come into being when this world is united with heaven, which is another world.

Either way, on the whole it seems fair to describe Christianity as otherworldly

Southern Anglican said...

Brian Barrington:

That is one way of looking at it. Another would be: this is, indeed, our true home. We were made here. We were meant to live here. The problem is that the world and the human race have been given over to death and the devil. I am sure you are familiar with the story. The point is, while God is still sovereign over his creation, we have, essentially, chosen to surrender our stewardship of it to his enemy. This world therefore suffers from a lack of communion with God. Because the world and the human race are inextricably linked - think of the story of the Fisher King - we find this lack of communion manifest in 'natural' ways: death, predation, poison, disease, natural disasters, et al. So the Christian idea is that these things are fundamentally wrong, and did not exist - or at least did not exist in the same form - when the world was created. God's creation is inherently good insofar as it is created, and the evils found in it are privation, not essential feature. The new heavens and the new earth are therefore a restoration of this one, God re-establishing communion with the world and with humanity through Christ and 'filling up' the privation in his creation with the good it should have but currently lacks. The world is 'made new' in the sense of 'good as new', not in the sense of 'destroyed and replaced with something discontinuous.'

Now insofar as the object of this hope (a world without evil) doesn't exist yet, I suppose Christianity can be called otherworldly, but I think the label is too simplistic. Christianity doesn't deny the world in the way that the gnostics did. It does not say, "Nothing good can come from this existence. Our goal is to escape materiality." It says, rather, that this world is beautiful and good but also disordered and transitory. The things in it do not last. We may enjoy them (in the manner we were created to enjoy them, that is, morally) but we must value above them the Creator, our Father, who does not change and who is wholly good with no admixture of evil.

I plan to write a little about heaven and the intermediate state (or quote someone who explains it well), but I think that will make for another post.


David B Marshall said...

Sorry, Brian, but you're in danger of falling into the Gnu sin of proof-texting. You're doing what in Chinese they call "breaking the paragraph to get your (intended) meaning."

Lin Yutang, one of China's greatest modern literary figures, titles chapter 37 "The Art of Government."

The art of what? Ruling people. Making a state harmonious and successful.

The goal is stated plainly in the first verse:

"Rule a kingdom by the Normal.
Fight a battle by (abnormal) tactics of surprise.
Win the world by doing nothing.
How do I know it is so?

"Through this: The more prohibitions there are, the poorer the people become.
The more sharp weapons there are, the more prevailing chaos there is in the state.
The more skills of technique, the more cunning things are produced.
The greater the number of statutes,
The greater the number of thieves and brigands."

Then the passage YOU cite.

What is clear, here? The goal is good government: richer people (elsewhere, people with full stomachs), less chaos, fewer thieves and brigands, victorious battle, "win the world."

In other words (I am tempted to say, with a smile) the Republican Party platform.

But with a distinctly liberatarian method of attaining it, which you already cited.

"I deal in no business and the people grow rich by themselves."


Remember the whole book is framed as advice for political leaders!

Keep reading Lao Zi, Brian. He's preaching sermons elite European liberals badly need to hear. (I hope this doesn't ruin it for you! If it does, you can underline the parts about "sharp weapons.")

As for terms like "wuwei," ("without force," "inaction") I've already explained that the term had evolved over hundreds of years, and that Lao Zi was expressing one traditional view of government with this term. It is a paradox, not a genuine blanket dismissal of telos.

David B Marshall said...

SA: You're welcome to post a link here somewhere, when you have it written. I would have to tell Brian, that I honestly don't know much about heaven or hell.

Brian Barrington said...

Thanks Southern Anglican for you comments. I wonder would the following be a fair thing to say about the Christians worldview: For Christians God is a conscious, thinking, willing being, with free will and volition who made a free decision to create this world and this universe. God voluntarily, through an act of will, created this physical, mundane world of material beings. He had and has complete command over the matter he created. God existed before and outside this material world, either in heaven or not. Either way, God is fundamentally different from non-conscious physical objects like planets and stones - which is what is meant by saying that God is a spiritual being. And we humans are also fundamentally different from non-conscious objects like rocks and stones, since we have souls, which are not material entities, and these souls were given to us by God. That is what makes us also spiritual beings, and why we are to some extent created in the image of God, in contrast to the rest of his creation.

All in all then, Christianity presents an essentially dualist, two-world vision of reality. It rejects the materialist or monist vision of reality. Thus, to me it seems justifiable to describe Christianity as otherworldly.

Southern Anglican said...

Brian Barrington:

You said: "After all, God consciously CREATED this physical world and this physical reality - so there must be other realities and worlds where God exists or existed, as a conscious, thinking being, before he created this world and this reality."

This strikes me as a very odd claim, and it's certainly not something I believe. Heaven may or may not be a 'place.' We are given very few concrete facts about Heaven; the main point of Heaven is that God is there, but whether this means Heaven is a place where God is located or that Heaven is the state wherein we glorify God and enjoy him for ever is not clarified. I am inclined to the latter view, in part because the God of the Scriptures is obviously non-local apart from the Incarnation. He is spirit, he is omnipresent, and, I think, we do not have warrant to suppose things about Heaven or other dimensions because of the logical problems it might solve. For instance, if Heaven is a state and not a place, then where is Jesus' body located? Well, I don't know and neither do you. Let us leave it at that.

Further, before God created the world there was literally nothing. That's the point. Everything that exists and is not God was created by God. Angels, humans, dogs, rocks, fairies if they exist, and so on. If there are other dimensions, he created those too. If it is true, as you seem to assume, that God needed a physical place to /be/ before he created the world, then according to Christian teaching that place was also necessarily created by him; 'all things were made through him (i.e. the Word), and without him was not any thing made that was made.' But then we just have an infinite sequence of places God made to locate himself in, which is clearly nonsense. It makes more sense to say simply that prior to the creation of the world God existed and nothing else did; no space or time, no matter or energy. God is not in need of those things, after all.

Now regarding heaven and the intermediate state. It seems clear that we enjoy some kind of blessedness before the Resurrection, for to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. And this is what is usually thought of as Heaven, rather than the new earth where earth and Heaven come together for all time. We do not know very much about it. Anthony Hoekema summarizes pretty well what we do know in The Bible And The Future:

"Paul does not tell us exactly how we shall experience this closeness with Christ after death. We have no description of the nature of this fellowship; we can form no image of it. Since we shall no longer be in the body, we shall be delivered from the sufferings, imperfections, and sins which haunt this present life. But our glorification will not be complete until the resurrection of the body will have taken place. Therefore the condition of believers during the intermediate state, as Calvin taught, is a condition of incompleteness, of anticipation, of provisional blessedness.

"The Bible does not have an independent doctrine of the intermediate state. Its teaching on this state is never to be separated from its teaching on the resurrection of the body and the renewal of the earth. Therefore, as Berkouwer points out, the believer should have, not a 'twofold expectation of the future, but a 'single expectation.' We look forward to an eternal, glorious existence with Christ after death, an existence which will culminate in the resurrection. Intermediate state and resurrection are therefore thought of as two aspects of a unitary expectation.

"At the same time, biblical teaching on the intermediate state is of great significance. Believers who have died are 'the dead in Christ' (I Thess. 4:16); whether they live or die, they are the Lord's (Rom 14:8). Neither life nor death, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:38-39)."

Brian Barrington said...

David, the specific translation of verse 37assets a tad unorthodox when compared to the 25 or so translations below.

In any event the passage you quoted sounds to me very like, say, contemporary ultra-liberal Netherlands, Norway, Sweden or Denmark -  there are very few prohibitions, almost everything is legal, there are very few weapons, very little chaos, very low poverty rates, very few police, highly educated populations, hardly anyone is in prison (the Netherlands has been closing down its prisons because it can't find anyone to put into them) and so on. As close as you will find to the peaceful, harmonious, stable, ungreedy, moderate society advocated by the DDJ :-)

Brian Barrington said...

Hi Southern Anglican, thanks for your comments. I see what you are saying - I didn't mean to imply that other non-earthly worlds or realities are all spatial or temporal. 

In any case, God existed before this world and he created this material world, so he existed or can exist as a reality that is fundamentally different from this world - an essentially spiritual non-material reality, which is God himself. And God also appears to have created worlds (heaven etc.) that are also separate and different from this world, at least for the moment. And humans can exist as souls without bodies I.e. as non-material entities e.g. in the period after death but before the resurrection.

So again, Christianity presents an essentially dualist, two-world (at least) vision of reality, and is in that sense "otherworldly".

David B Marshall said...

Brian: Lin Yutang, unorthodox? That's an interesting site, but I don't see anything on it that disconfirms Lin's almost always excellent translation. Nor do I see it in the original, which I read first.

Southern Anglican said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Southern Anglican said...

Brian Barrington:

"Thanks Southern Anglican for you comments. I wonder would the following be a fair thing to say about the Christians worldview."

The first part looks good, though we should probably keep in mind that when we say God has 'thoughts', we mean that there is something in God which corresponds, however roughly, to our powers of intellection. Terms predicated of God and created beings are always analogical, never equivocal. My thoughts and God's thoughts are not the same kinds of thoughts. God is very different from all created things, and that is actually putting it mildly.

We could also refine your claim and simply say that nothing exists apart from God's creating and sustaining it, but both of these are minor quibbles. The substance of your statement is pretty good and orthodox until this part:

"Either way, God is fundamentally different from non-conscious physical objects like planets and stones - which is what is meant by saying that God is a spiritual being. And we humans are also fundamentally different from non-conscious objects like rocks and stones, since we have souls, which are not material entities, and these souls were given to us by God. That is what makes us also spiritual beings, and why we are to some extent created in the image of God, in contrast to the rest of his creation."

There are several problems with this statement. It reflects an idea that is widely held by Christians, but it is hardly obligatory and does not constitute the essential difference between God and created things or between God and dumb matter. For instance, St. Thomas Aquinas believed, with Aristotle, that plants possess 'vegetative souls' and animals possess 'sensitive souls'. This does not refer to some distinct spiritual stuff inhering in them, but rather to their substantial forms. Put simply, in this view matter is the underlying 'stuff' of which physical things are composed. It does not exist in abstract. There is no 'prime matter' out there somewhere. It must be joined to form, which orders the stuff as whatever kind of stuff it happens to be (its substance) and whatever little quirks it happens to possess (its accidents). So, for instance, right now I have at my desk a piece of paper. It is white (accidental, for it could be painted over and still be paper), rectangular (accidental, for I could rip it up and it would still be paper), and composed of an organic pulp (substantial, for if I were to light it on fire and turn it to ash, it would no longer be paper at all). Likewise, plants order their biological processes in certain ways, and this is what is meant by 'vegetative soul.' Animals have minds, sensory powers, and self-directed movement, and this is what is meant by 'sensitive soul.' Humans have both these things, and additionally possess rational faculties which supersede these other qualities and so in humans we speak of a 'rational soul.'

(continued below)

Southern Anglican said...

You may gather from what has already been said that for St. Thomas, 'the soul is the form of the body.' It is what makes the body a living thing, a human person, rather than a hunk of dead matter. A rock has a form and a corpse has a form, and the difference between their forms and the form of a living being is simply life (not 'lifeforce' in a vitalistic sense) and nothing else. So a soul is just a kind of form, like the pulp out of which my paper is made and the colour of my wallpaper. And life, this mysterious stuff which allows us to speak of things as having souls, is simply self-determination; 'all things are said to be alive that determine themselves to movement or operation of any kind.'

Now with plants or animals we do not speak of continued existence after death, but with humans we do. This is because humans possess a rational faculty which plants and animals lack; and for St. Thomas the intellect's operation is at least partially independent of the body. We need not get into all the reasons St. Thomas thinks so, as this post is quite long enough already. Suffice it to say that for St. Thomas the intellect is a subsistent form which does not require matter to function, and this depends more on the nature of intellection that the body's role in carrying it out. I myself believe that the human soul is not naturally immortal but is preserved by God directly.

Now I embarked on this little excursus in order to illustrate a view (which I myself hold) on the nature of the soul that does not require positing any immaterial soul-substance. I would emphasize that this is NOT Christian dogma. It is a philosophical view that Aristotle, St Thomas Aquinas and I all share, and it is called hylemorphic dualism. I think it makes good sense and coheres nicely with the Hebraic idea of the spirit mainly having to do with life itself rather than an immortal soul in the Platonic sense. But I would not impose this view on anyone's conscience and I could not prove it by scripture. It is a private opinion of my own. But I think it shows that one can hold a notion of the soul and of spiritual realities that does not depend on this spiritual world/physical world division you see in Christianity. That sounds to me more like shamanism than the faith I know. Christian dogma only requires I admit that that there are realities I cannot see; God is one, angels another. But in the case of God, he is so radically different from all creation that I think it is misleading to say 'God is spirit' full stop. He is spirit, yes. He is also perfect goodness, truth, mercy, love, justice, etc. These descriptions are analogical. They do not express the essence of God. They are true in that there is a sort of correspondence or analogy between what we know of goodness and what God is. But his transcendence prohibits us from thinking these words can express the totality of his divine attributes. Therefore I do not count God as being a spirit 'along with' angels, demons, souls, etc. I think he must be considered in himself, so far as it is possible to us.

(continued below)

Southern Anglican said...

Now you may say, "Very well, Mr Anglican, but it still remains that in your view God is an invisible reality, separate from the world. And union with God is the goal of Christianity. Therefore Christianity is otherworldly. Likewise God created other worlds such as heaven, as I have already asserted, and it is there that believers will dwell, at least until the eschaton. Therefore Christianity is otherworldly. And finally, though you may have shown that a Christian need not believe in spiritual substances, you nevertheless concede that souls go on after death. Therefore Christianity is otherworldly."

In the first place, our communion with God does not begin when we leave this world. To glorify God and enjoy him for ever is the chief end of man both in this life and in the next; and of course we have responsibilities. We cannot pine away wishing for that blessedness which awaits us or I should venture to say we may find ourselves disqualified from the race. God is very much concerned with how we conduct ourselves here, in this world. He wishes us to worship him now in this world, to act virtuously now in this world, to spread the Gospel now in this world, to raise families, attend to our vocations, be kind to kittens and elderly persons, and so on. We may have a hope in the life to come, but if that is all you mean by saying we are otherworldly, well, I guess I can live with the label. Because what concerns me about the label is the implication that the Christian should be DISINTERESTED in this life. And I think that's very, very wrong. That is why I have spent so much time writing this reply.

In the second place I would contest the notion that God created a separate world called Heaven, where believers go when they die. The 'world to come' to which I look forward, the world to come referenced in the Nicene Creed, is simply this world restored to its pristine state, united to Heaven - that is to say, this world and humanity in communion with God. Because that is my understanding of the word 'Heaven'. I grant I could be wrong and God could conceivably have created a place called Heaven, and this is where the dead in Christ dwell, in a geographic sense, until the coming eschaton. But I do not positively believe this, it is not a part of my faith, and I do not think a Christian need believe it to be orthodox. In fact most Christians I've met tend to share my sentiments. All we really know about the positive side of the intermediate state, what is called Abraham's Bosom, is that in that state or place we shall be with Christ. And that is the only important thing.

In the third place, we do indeed say that something of a person goes on after death; but this 'in-between' existence is hardly the hope of believers and indeed it is profoundly unnatural. Humans were created as a unity of body and soul. We look forward to the resurrection of our bodies and the renewal of creation, not some half-existence as a form separated from its matter. And this hardly constitutes an existence in invisible worlds, by which I imagine you mean some sort of alternate dimension, like the Elysian Fields or Valhalla. And anyway what goes on after death is simply what makes a person a person, not an invisible substance conjoined to their bodies. And so I do not think Christianity is otherworldly by this light, either.

I hope I have not belabored my point overmuch, and if I have, that what I have written is at least clear and in some way helpful. Thank for your this exchange. If you wish to continue, perhaps you could clarify what you mean by 'otherworldly', as I should have asked you to do at the outset. Though honestly, I do not know what I could add to this, except proofs from scripture - and interpreting whole passages of scripture is probably too ambitious a goal for a combox exchange.


Southern Anglican said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Southern Anglican said...

Brian: never mind, I see that you have. Silly me. Sure. I don't think that is really accurate, but at least in the sense that we are focused on God, who is not a creature of this world or identical with this world, one could say we are 'otherworldly.'

Derek said...


The popular picture of the Christian understanding of afterlife (Christian dies, Christian’s soul goes to heaven) does owe something to popular preachers and teachers who don’t know any better. This does not, however, change the fact that it is wrong and has never been the teaching of the Orthodox Church. The NT documents come out of the literary world of the Second Temple Jewish period. Read the works of scholars like Wright and Bauckham who show the NT’s connections with contemporaneous literature on subjects like the resurrection.

I think you mean to say that Christianity’s cosmology is dualistic. A more correct term would be “layered.” A religious dualism would be Zoroastrianism. Where the forces of good and evil, right and wrong, oppose each other with equal strength and necessity in the universe.

But back to the point. Your original comments contrasted Daoism with Christianity. You said:

“The whole point of Christianity is that this world IS lacking, it is not the soul's true home - the soul's true home, for the Christian, is another world that is separate from this world. In contrast, Taoism is entirely about being completely at home in this world.”

So your original comments didn’t have anything to do with cosmology, but about how Daoism is this-worldly (in the sense that it accepts the reality that this world is our home) whereas Christianity is other-worldly (in the sense that Christians wait for an ethereal existence that is in another place). What could you have meant here but heaven?

There is simply no support for this claim. Those within Christianity who still espouse this narrative would need to provide extensive exegetical arguments from all over the NT to support it, and that just ain’t gonna happen. Southern Anglican covered the bases really well. But even he doesn’t realize how correct he is. For example, he says:

“I think it makes good sense and coheres nicely with the Hebraic idea of the spirit mainly having to do with life itself rather than an immortal soul in the Platonic sense. But I would not impose this view on anyone's conscience and I could not prove it by scripture. It is a private opinion of my own. But I think it shows that one can hold a notion of the soul and of spiritual realities that does not depend on this spiritual world/physical world division you see in Christianity. That sounds to me more like shamanism than the faith I know.”

This is the meat of the problem. Those Christians who say foolish things like “I am waiting for heaven” do not understand the NT within it social historical context. Nor do they understand the social historical contexts of the ancient Semitic worlds that the OT belongs to (which, in-turn, influenced the Second Temple and Early Christian contexts).

JP Holding explains the Semitic-Totality concept here on his page on Baptism:

“To put it another way, man does not have a body; man is a body, and what we regard as constituent elements of spirit and body were looked upon by the Hebrews as a fundamental unity. Man was not made from dust, but is dust that has, "by the in-breathing of God, acquired the characteristics of self-conscious being."”

Christians, like Jews, believe that God made the world good. He put humans on this world. But both our bodies, and our world, need to be cleansed from the imperfections of sin. As Paul says in 1 Cor 15:53 “this mortal body must put on immortality.” This is the resurrection of the dead. It is physical, not spiritual. Semitic, not Greek. THIS world is our home, and it will be our home after God has brought everything back to Himself.

Revelation, as the last book of the Scriptures, looks back to Genesis to describe the “new earth.” Trees producing fruit, a river flowing through the city as through Eden, and most importantly, God will dwell among humans (Rev. 21:3).

Brian Barrington said...

Thank you both for your very interesting comments. My impression is that you both object to 'Platonic' Christianity, and therefore your vision of Christianity is indeed less otherworldly and less dualist than that of many other Christians. Of course, Western Christianity at least has been heavily infused with Platonism since at least Augustine and Clement, so my impression is that your way of viewing this differs somewhat from most Christians I know. 

And in my view, the mere fact that Christians believe that this world was created by a conscious being in an act of will or volition makes Christianity somewhat dualist - since this means that consciousness, mind, the spiritual or whatever one wishes to call it, comes BEFORE matter, the physical world etc. It means that mind, the soul, consciousness etc. can exist without the physical or the material. That, to my mind is the essence of dualism and otherworldism, and it is precisely this that the Thisworldly, monist or more materialist philosophies reject.

I would strongly stress that otherworldliness does NOT, in my view, imply disinterest in this life and this world. On the contrary it invests everything that happens in this world with supreme significance. In fact, resignation, 
acceptance and indifference are far more common in what I regard as more Thisworldly, monist philosophies such as Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Stoicism and Spinozism. What I regard as more dualist philosophies, such as Platonism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Cartesianism are far, far more active, dynamic, and invested with the hope that this world can be fundamentally altered or improved. Whereas the thisworldly philosophies tend to think that reality is just the way it is and that it is not going to change in any essential way - so they tend to emphasise becoming unified with reality as it is, rather than emphasising changing reality. The Thisworldly, monist philosophies emphasise ACCEPTANCE much more so that the otherworldly, dualist philosophies.

David B Marshall said...

"What I regard as more Thisworldly, monist philosophies such as Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Stoicism and Spinozism."

You're not going to let new facts challenge your scheme?

This-worldly, maybe. But as I have shown (to a limited but I think significant degree in this forum), Taoism in its original conception was not a monist philosophy, but something resembling a form of theism. In theory the God of Stoicism could be thought of as part of a monist scheme in some senses, but in practice -- most of Epictetus, Cleanthe's Hymn to Zeus -- Stoics often also prayed to a God very like that of Christians.

"Hinduism" is a family of beliefs related more by common origin than theology. Monism is associated with it, but there are strong strands of theism there, too, even (one could argue) in the Bhagavad Gita.

But you do distance yourself from saying simply calling them "monist philosophies," and it is no doubt true that they are "more monist" in a relative sense, than Judeo-Christianity, for instance, just as I am (very slightly) more liberal than Sarah Palin.

Southern Anglican said...

Brian: I would say I specifically object to 1) any idea that our chief hope is in some ethereal existence rather than the Resurrection, and 2) the Platonic view of the soul as naturally immortal and superior to the body. Platonism is a convenient and much maligned bogeyman, but there are things in Plato's thought I appreciate. I just don't think one can accept it in an uncritical way. Likewise St. Augustine was a great teacher and Father of the Church, but there are a number of subjects on which I believe he erred.

Bob Fisher said...

"In any event the passage you quoted sounds to me very like, say, contemporary ultra-liberal Netherlands, Norway, Sweden or Denmark - there are very few prohibitions, almost everything is legal,"

Brian, despite the humorous aspect of this that apparently the most important aspect of "freedom" for you is smoking pot, the preceding statement is pretty misleading. But perhaps you are just ignorant. Just google "Ake Green" and tell us again how free these "enlightened" societies are.

I also like the "very low poverty rates".

Do you consider it a "low" rate of poverty if you get away with living beyond your means for a few years and then have to live under austerity measures?

Europe (and Ireland) are demonstrating before your very eyes that big government cannot legislate wealth into being, and yet your head is still implanted too firmly in the sand for you to see it. You really are a piece of work.

Brian Barrington said...

David, yes, there is no doubt that these are all massively complex systems of thought. What can be said is that on the spectrum between pure dualism (which I believe to be more theistic) and pure monism (which I believe to be more atheistic) some of these philosophies are generally closer to dualism than to monism (and therefore more theistic), and others are closer to monism than to dualism  (and therefore more atheistic).

Now, I hold to the view that Taoism is markedly less dualistic and less theistic than, for example, Christianity. The Taoist is not required to believe in a theistic God, or to hold any form of metaphysical dualism. You disagree, but I am just not persuaded by your arguments --we've gone through it quite thoroughly, so we had better just agree to disagree at this stage!

You're correct that some forms of Hinduism are more dualist and theist than others - but again if we place Hinduism on the "spectrum" it is in many of its forms more monist and atheistic (especially in many of its most sophisticated and influential philosophical forms) than are, for example, Christianity and Islam. You seem to agree with this.

Stoicism tends to be deterministic, naturalistic, monistic, pantheistic etc. and the ethical approach tends to emphasise acceptance and the annihilation of desire. Sure, you might be able to find some quotes or passages that don't entirely fit that description,  but where Stoicism fits on the "spectrum" is revealed when you compare it with, for example, Platonism.

Brian Barrington said...

Bob - Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands all have very healthy public finances, as does Germany. They are not living beyond their means. Greece was living beyond its means - mostly because it doesn't have a proper tax collection system. Spain and Ireland had very healthy public finances (budget surpluses in Ireland) until the global economic crash - which was caused by unregulated private banks. What screwed up the Irish economy and public finances was the private sector banks, and the subsequent bailouts of those banks.

Bob, you are an utter moron and you haven't the slightest idea what you are talking about.

David B Marshall said...

Brian: I find it a little irritating that, having taken the time to show why each your interpretations are wrong, and why in many cases you were misquoting DDJ, using a bad translation, or reading it blatantly out of context -- picking out part of a chapter and ignoring the rest, for instance -- you just shrug off the facts I've cited, and say, "Well, that's your opinion, and this is mine."

On other subjects, say Spinoza or probably Kant, I'll bow to your superior knowledge. In this case, your view on how to interpret the DDJ, as we have seen, just isn't worth much. Don't ask me how to repair cars, but I've given enough of the facts above for an open-minded person to actually change their minds -- and yours doesn't appear to have budged.

This is my field. I expect my dissertation to change the mind of credentialed scholars of ancient Chinese thought. You are not such a scholar, and until you can refute the actual facts I have cited above, let's not pretend our opinions about the DDJ are equally valid.

Rudy said...

@David, I'm late to this party, but how do translators ever figure out what texts like the DDJ actually say, as terse as the texts are in classical Chinese? You quote a phrase upthread somewhere about 6 characters long that turns, in the translations, into an unbelievably long English sentence.

I'm not quibbling about the translation (I knew most of the characters, but I am pretty useless at Chinese), just wondering how scholars get around that. My college instructor used to tell us how ellipitical classical Chinese was (of course having way more characters than modern Chinese probably helped fix that a bit.)

David B Marshall said...

Rudy: Some passages of DDJ are difficult even for experts in classical Chinese to translate, and are legitimately debated. Not only is the book concise and elliptical, while there are some unusual characters, most of the text uses pretty simple vocabulary, but the meaning of some of those key terms seem ambiguous: Dao being the most obvious.

I guess you're talking about this phrase:


Brian quoted someone translating this equally concisely: "values the self as the world."

This does not seem to make sense, in light of the chapter as a whole.

Legge, Lin, and Yan (also Yuan Zhiming) read this instead as meaning valuing the world as one naturally values oneself:

"Honouring (the kingdom) as he honours his own person."

That's pretty consise. But this translation, from Yan, is longer:

"If a person is willing to sacrifice himself in service to the people of the world, then you can entrust him with the world."

There's a larger element of interpretation here, obviously. (And I'm translating from modern Chinese.) Yan (and Yuan) are understanding Lao Zi's meaning in this specific text from what he says elsewhere in the book about the same subject -- including no doubt in passages I pointed out here earlier. Lao Zi does talk about the sage sacrificing himself quite clearly in DDJ 78, which is about the weakness of water "conquering" by its pliability:

"This is why the Sage says, he who takes on himself the sins of the nation is worthy of acting as Lord of the Sacrifice. One who takes upon himself the misfortune of the natoin can be called King of the World."

This is straightforward. (Though what Lao Zi meant is more difficult.) DDJ 13 is a little more cryptic, but obviously points in the same direction, which makes it easy for Yan and Yuan to add a bit of interpretation. Legge does not, but still contradicts Derek Lin's reading.

So to answer your question, specific passages can often be interpreted in light of how key terms and ideas are developed elsewhere in the text.

Rudy said...

@David, yes, that was the phrase. I can see that making out what it means would use context from the rest of the text.

Brian Barrington said...

David, perhaps we need to clarify exactly what we are disagreeing about here?

My first contention is that the Tao is, to say the least, significantly less personal than the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Tao is NOT described as speaking, nor as saying anything, nor as issuing commandments, nor as experiencing emotions, nor as acting, nor as doing anything resulting from volition, nor as willing anything, nor as intending anything, nor as desiring anything.

Yes, those who know the Tao and follow the Tao benefit enormously, but that is entirely consistent with an impersonal God, as with the Stoics and Spinoza.

My second contention is that Taoism is significantly less dualist and more monist than Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Platonism. The whole tendency of Taoism is to overcome opposites, and to blur rigid distinctions. A couple quotes from  Zhuangzi are enough to demonstrate this:

 “Only the truly intelligent understand this principle of the levelling of all things into One. They discard the distinctions and take refuge in the common and ordinary things. The common and ordinary things serve certain functions and therefore retain the wholeness of nature. From this wholeness, one comprehends, and from comprehension, one to the Tao. There it stops. To stop without knowing how it stops -- this is Tao.”

"Take, for instance, a twig and a pillar, or the ugly person and the great beauty, and all the strange and monstrous transformations. These are all levelled together by Tao. Division is the same as creation; creation is the same as destruction. There is no such thing as creation or destruction, for these conditions are again levelled together into One."

Another passage speaks of fools who "wear out one's intellect in an obstinate adherence to the individuality of things, not recognizing the fact that all things are One."

As for the Sage, he resembles the Tao in that he is given to non-action, he is without desires (ch57 sentence 5, ch 64 sentence 6), he is impartial (ch5 sentence 1), he overcomes his ego and sense of “self”, he does not regard his own body as his self, he has no mind of his own (ch49 sentence 1), is indifferent to all (ch 49 sentence 4), does not attempt great or dazzling deeds, does not meddle or grasp, and is obscure. 

What do you object to here? 

David B Marshall said...

Brian: Sorry for the slow response; it's been a busy week.

What you say about Dao is all somewhat mistaken, or one-sided. Lao Zi describes Dao as doing all these things, though admittedly with more subtlety and nuance (valuable, I think, in light of present creation theories) than a naive understanding of Judeo-Christian cosmology.

One cannot cite Zhuang Zi to prove a contention about Lao Zi.

It is more historically reasonable to read Lao Zi in light of previous Chinese philosophy and literature, which he certainly read, and which he often seems to reference.

John Wu, author of the ROC Constitution, recognized both personal and impersonal impulses in DDJ:

"Tao is beyond the distinction of personal and impersonal. It is neither and both . . . All words we employ in speaking about the Tao must be taken analogically and evocatively." (Wu 1965: 70-71).

After thirty pages of close examination, I conclude my discussion of Lao Zi's Dao:

"Like the Classical High God, Dao is ultimate, self-existent, gives ‘birth,’ is the focus of faith, the source of morality, and of central importance for happiness. He cares for humanity, rewards good over evil (but seeks and saves the lost!), though His work is often hidden and obscure. Indeed, Dao’s effortless, hidden creativity becomes an increasingly attractive picture of God in light of modern cosmology . . . "

I am tempted to just copy and paste the whole discussion in a post here. I can't do that; the full argument should be saved for print. But I may go through DDJ in more detail than I have yet above, and show why, while certainly "less personal" than the biblical portrait of God - as is to be expected, given that Lao Zi experienced a less concrete revelation, it seems -- Dao is, nevertheless, portrayed as caring, morally good, intentional, and as speaking to and through the Sage. If so, I'll put that in a new post.