Thursday, October 05, 2017

Is the Dao God?

When Lao Zi, the founder of philosophical Taoism, wrote of the Dao (Tao, pronounced like the first word of Dow Jones) in his great work, the Dao De Jing, did he have someone like God in mind? 

I think he did.

From my doctoral dissertation:

Mount Lao in Shandong, where the Complete Perfection
School of Taoism developed.  The world's largest status of Lao Zi (allegedly) stands in the background.

7.4. God in the Classics: Dao ()  

Deng Lianhe (邓联合) argues that the earliest form of dao on bronze inscriptions is an associative compound (会意字) formed from radicals for move, hand, and head, suggesting ‘lead forward’ ( 2006).  In BOP, dao can mean ‘speak,’ but more often a physical path.[1] Without ceasing to be concrete, some poems make wistful, even elegiac references to the state of highways that lead to royal cities, which symbolize the depressed state of the nation (149; as, indeed, Isaiah 33:8). The route to the capital is easy and plain (105), ‘winding and slow’ (162), or ‘overgrown with weeds’ (197).  Decrying injustice and calling for judgment (‘Oh Azure Heaven!  Pity the troubled!’), the eunuch Meng Zi () writes enigmatically of a path through a willow garden (; 200, Legge BOP: 359 fn).[2]  Huai tribes () offer tribute to the Marquis of Lu in 299: because the marquis accords with the ‘great Way,’ the peoples submit. 
BOH does not entirely neglect the concrete, but develops the symbolic and cosmo-political potential of the word more fully. ‘Tribute of Yu’ (‘) and ‘Hounds of Lu’ (‘) mark rivers as routes () along which tribute flows to the newly-established Xia and Zhou, respectively, from border tribes. ‘Great Plan’ (‘) speaks four times, again in the context of transition to the Zhou, of the ‘royal way.’ In ‘Officers of Zhou,’ dao refers to ‘principles of reason’ (Legge) by which officers were to set a philosophical tone for the state, as they harmonized () Heaven and Earth (‘Yin and Yang’). The Shang king is reminded that reverence for the ‘path prescribed by Heaven’ is the primary prerequisite for maintaining his heavenly mandate (BOH, ‘Announcement of Zhonghui’ [‘仲虺之]). ‘Charge to Yue’ (‘) tells how, while pondering the right ‘way,’ the king dreamed Di gave him a worthy assistant.  He searched for someone matching his vision, ultimately locating a builder named Yue (). Elevated to prime minister, Yue reminded the king that intelligent rulers adhere to the ‘Way of Heaven’ and appoint officers for the general welfare. One who is in accord with the dao listens to both living ministers and the ancients (), so that ‘all truth’ () accumulates in his person.  
Betraying Dao was Shou’s undoing (BOH, ‘Great Declaration III’ [‘], ‘Successful Completion of the War’ [‘武成]).  Shou drank and hunted too much, neglected ritual, and oppressed the innocent. By contrast, Shang Di / Great Heaven (the words appear in sequence) approved the ‘ways’ of Wen and Wu and appointed them to rule (‘Announcement of King Kang’ [‘康王之誥]). Human ‘ways’ are not always virtuous (‘Charge to Duke of Bi’ [‘畢命]). But Tian Dao is inherently good, so prosperous families should not ‘set themselves in opposition to the Way of Heaven’ by neglecting ritual.    
So most often in BOH dao refers to right action and carries divine connotations, almost as concrete but less anthropomorphic than Wisdom in Proverbs 9.   

The legendary meeting of Confucius and Lao Zi
In Analects dao is used far more frequently, almost exclusively to refer to how one thinks and acts: a model of life exemplified by divinely appointed sages. The essentials having been established, one’s proper course reveals itself (1:2). The way of the ancients was to allow for differences in skill (3:16, also 1:12, 4:20). In guiding a state, be reverent, trustworthy, frugal (especially with corvee labour), and benevolent (1:5). Should one hear of the Way in the morning, yet die that evening, one may be satisfied (4:8); still, Confucius did not talk about the Way of Heaven (5:13). The central principle that lent his teaching coherence was integrity and extending consideration to others (4:15, also 6: 12, 15, 9:30, 17:4). A virtuous man avoids greed, but seeks out men of principle (Lau: ‘men possessed of the Way’) to be set right (1:14, see 4:5, 5:16, 8:4, 16:11). Indeed, one must be ashamed of a scholar who worries about food and clothing more than the right way (4:9). The civilized world had long been shorn of true principles (3:24, 5:2), which determine the state of a nation (5:21, 6:24, 16:2). The ascendancy of such principles manifests itself in national flourishing that draws good men to government (8:13).  
In short, by the late Spring and Autumn period, while retaining its literal meaning of path, route, or speak, dao had accrued increasingly important moral, political, and spiritual connotations.  Like John’s use of logos, then, Lao Zi’s appropriation of dao involved a conceptual leap, but only down a well-trod Way. 
7.5 Dao of Lao Zi  
Dao in DDJ has been translated as Nature (Watters), Reason (Carus), Truth (Cheng Lin), Integrity (Mair), the Way (Lau, Chan, Blakney), and often simply transliterated (Legge, Giles, Young & Ames, Ch’u Ta-Kao, Meyer).[3] Other FT thinkers, like Legge and Wu, recognized areas of convergence between Lao Zi’s Dao and the Christian God, but Yuan posits an unusually bold identify. 
Yuan suggests seven attributes support the equation. Dao, Yuan argues, is Self-existent (自在者), Creator (造化者), Transcendent (超越者), Life-Giver (生命者), Revealer (启示者), Righteous Judge (公义审判者), and Saviour (拯救者; 1997: 207, also 224). Others deny Dao possesses some of these characteristics, even drawing emphatic contrast with the Christian God in relation to them – which seems to tacitly admit the validity of identifying God by means of taximetric classification. Yuan also lists ten characteristics that he thinks show Dao is personal. There is some overlap between these two lists, and I see the debate over transcendence as confused and of little interest.[4] I will therefore concentrate on an amalgam of thirteen traits.  
Along with the primary text itself, I consulted fourteen commentaries and /or translations into English or modern Chinese, aside from Yuan’s: commentaries by Han Dynasty Taoists He Shanggong (河上公;Erkes 1958) and Wang Bi (; Wang 1979), and by Chen Guying (Roger Ames and Rhett Young); translations into English (sometimes with commentary) by Legge, Lin (Lin 1955), Wing-tsit Chan (1963), J. J. L Duyvendak (1954), Raymond Blakney (1955), Chu Ta-kao (1959),  Arthur Waley (1958), D. C. Lau (1963), Gu Zhengkun (1995), and Moss Roberts (2001); and into modern Chinese, edited by Yan Zhi ( 1996), also referring at times to Yuan ( 1997b).  
I sort the evidence Yuan cites into five categories: (1) The first may be called ‘smoking guns.’ In the movie The Untouchables, an Irish police officer in 1920s Chicago is surprised in his apartment by a lightly-armed Italian assassin. Reaching for a loaded shotgun, he famously remarks: ‘Isn’t it just like a Wop to bring a knife to a gun fight!’ In that moment a single piece of data (the firearm) definitively reframes the story of assassination at knifepoint into which his assailant had choreographed his plans for the evening. Yuan claims to find two ‘smoking guns’ in the DDJ: evidence that Dao is linguistically related to Yahweh, and that Dao is triune. (2) Evidence that is somewhat convincing, but less than conclusive. (3) Evidence that holds little probative value by itself, but supports a larger confirming pattern. (4) Evidence that fails to support Yuan’s hypothesis. (5) Evidence that disconfirms his hypothesis. (For convenience, I collapse the converse of 1-3 into 5, concentrating in this analysis on any purported ‘smoking guns’ against Yuan’s thesis.)
7.6 Self-Existent Xu concedes that Dao is self-governing and self-existent, the ‘origin and root of all things in the universe’ (2006: 200). A few commentators disagree. A key exegetical battlefield is DDJ 25. Dao is the ‘Mother of all things’ that ‘came into existence before Heaven and Earth.’ Man takes his Law from Earth, Earth from Heaven, Heaven from Dao, while Dao ‘takes its law from self-actuality’ (道法自然).  
The Dao is by nature or from Nature?
Two of Xu’s informants claim ziran here (‘nature’ in modern Chinese) refers to the natural world. Indeed Rump and Chan translate, ‘And Tao models itself after Nature’ (Wang 1979: 78), following Wang Bi. Erkes, by contrast, renders this ‘Tao takes itself for its model,’ noting that He Shanggong added, ‘Tao is by nature itself. There is nothing which it could take for its model.’ The anonymous scholar whom Xu calls R19 (as numbered also below) points out that logically, Dao cannot come from any natural object, since Heaven and Earth (which by definition includes all natural objects) come from Dao. This point appears decisive. Also elsewhere in DDJ, ziran means ‘spontaneous’ (51) or ‘without acting’ (64) rather than referring to Nature. Thus even Ames and Young, who elsewhere argue for a naturalistic interpretation of Dao, translate 25, in part, ‘The Tao emulates that which is natural to it’ (Chen 1977: 142). R15 plausibly says ziran refers to the spontaneity of Dao, which operates ‘according to its own course and principle’ (Xu 2006: 118-120). Self-existence thus seems to be clearly ascribed to Dao, a quality that Christians have traditionally ascribed to God alone, a distinction important, for example, in the first premise of cosmological arguments: every finite and contingent being has a cause. (2) 
7.7 Eternal Chang is used in 18 chapters of DDJ, in 15 of which the meaning is ‘usually,’ Yuan admits. But in 16, 52 and 55, ‘when chang is used to describe Dao itself, it carries the meaning of ‘eternal’’ ( 1997: 80). Waley agrees about 16, ‘Tao is forever and he that possesses it, though his body ceases, is not destroyed.’ Chan and Chu also translate chang as eternal, while other translators say the Sage inherits or follows ‘the constant’ or ‘constancy,’ envisioned as a quality of (still mortal) life. So Yuan’s read is possible, but not proscriptive. Given that Dao is before Heaven and Earth, its eternal nature seems a plausible inference. (2 /3)  
7.8 Creator Informant R21 admits Dao may be eternal, infinite, and self-existent, but doubts he is creator, transcendent, revealer, judge, redeemer, or has ‘consciousness and personality . . . ‘ (Xu 2006: 135) R19 also doubts his creative and transcendent qualities, and thinks it a stretch to depict Dao as righteous judge and redeemer.
Does Dao create? Yuan notes that in 1:2 (‘”Nothing” names the origin of Heaven and Earth’ 无名天地之始) and 52:1, Lao Zi writes of a beginning.  Furthermore, ‘All things in Heaven and Earth are given birth from Being, and Being from Nothing.’ Dao is called Father, Mother, ‘Root’ and ‘Ancestor,’ and said to birth () the one, the two and then the three (DDJ, 42; 1997: 92-5; for Yuan’s translation, see 1997b: 37). Wu translates this: ‘Dao gave birth to One, One gave birth to Two, Two gave birth to Three, Three gave birth to all the myriad things.’ Legge and Chan use the less personal ‘produce,’ while Lin renders the verb passive: ‘Out of Dao, One is born; Out of One, Two; Out of Two, Three; Out of Three, the created universe.’  
Xu complains that Yuan improperly conflates ‘give birth’ (), which allegedly includes God as part of the universe, with ‘create’ (). R10, identified by Xu as a philosophy fellow at National Taiwan University, claims the latter means wilful ‘creation of something out of nothing’ in the Bible, while the former implies self-multiplication. R1, professor of theology and Chinese philosophy at a Hong Kong university, agrees:
According to ancient Chinese usage and the attending cultural background, the verb ‘sheng ‘ (giving birth or multiplying) in verse 42:1 is not the equivalent of ‘zao‘ (to create something out of nothing) in the Bible (Xu 2006: 122). 
Furthermore, Gernet adds that building was (for Chinese critics of Ricci) ‘a task for a drudge.’ He cites Xu Dashou, who asked how Christians could ‘denigrate’ Heaven by ‘likening it to a workman and . . . attribute to him the creation of man and woman?’ (Gernet 1985: 209)  
It is common to draw on Zhuang Zi’s lengthier writings to help interpret the cryptic DDJ. If we do so here, the distinction between Christian and Taoist descriptions of how the cosmos originated from the Logos or Dao grows less stark. Zhuang Zi several times uses zao to describe the ‘Creator’s’ work.  By contrast Paul cites Aratus, ‘For we also are His offspring,’ and, ‘Being then the offspring (γενος) of God . . . ‘  So the Lao-Zhuang school sometimes uses ‘create,’ while the Bible sometimes uses ‘give birth.’  In any case, both Western and Chinese understandings of creation must now be informed by empirical cosmology, and it is not hard to read elements of both emergence and creation into standard Big Bang accounts.  
While dying, Zhuang Zi’s character the cripple Zi Yu describes the Cosmos as a smelting-pot, ‘the Creator’ its Founder: ‘Therefore, whatever He wills, I will.  Soundly I have slept; calmly I shall awake!’ (Wu 1965: 77) Here is a subtle, hidden teleology, occasionally emerging into full-blown personality:
Oh my Master!  Oh my Master!  You mingle and blend all things without being harsh; You bestow blessings upon countless generations without being charitable; You are older than the highest antiquity without being aged; You brood over and sustain the whole universe, and carve all things into an infinite variety of forms without resorting to artificial skill.  This is what I would call the Joy of Heaven. (‘大宗師,’ 5)
This shows that the contempt Xu Dashao expressed for mere craftsmen (and Gernet claimed was general in Ricci’s day), was less than universal in classical China. It also suggests a view of the creation process that leaves room for a conscious being working through whatever emergent qualities modern science may find in nature.   
Wu points out that Zhuang Zi used Tian and Dao interchangeably: ‘Both terms designate the One ne plus ultra.  But when viewing It as the Creator, he usually called It “Heaven,” which is equivalent to “God.”’ Wu argues that for Confucius and the Taoist founders, usually Tian is ‘God,’ while Dao corresponds to his ‘Power, Wisdom, and Way.’ But since one cannot firmly distinguish between God and his attributes, Dao ‘can also be called Creator’ (Wu 1965: 77).[5]   
BOH and BOP never use zao in the fully biblical sense of ‘creation out of nothing,’ and seldom to describe the work of the High God. In BOH, zao often describes formation of a new political order (‘Announcement of Tang’ [‘湯誥]1, ‘Announcement to the Prince of Kang’ 2[‘康誥]), ‘inducing’ a state of affairs (‘Pan Geng’ 2 [‘盤庚]), or ‘displaying’ wisdom (‘Great Announcement’ 1 [‘大誥]. In BOP, zao can be concrete: ‘make’ new clothes (‘Da Ming’ [‘大明]), or a bridge, and ‘Early after my birth, time still passed without anything stirring,’ which juxtaposes sheng (be born) and zao (stir) within five characters (我生之初,尚无造).  Evan Xu supposes Dao to be ‘more like a producer or multiplier rather than a sovereign creator in the Bible’ (Xu 2006: 202). But in BOP, where Xu accepts a robust theism, sheng refers to the action of the Supreme Being in originating humanity; zao never does. (Though in the commentary on the third hexagram of Yijing, Heaven is said to ‘create’ plants [天造草味]). 
Sheng () is often used, in oracle bones, for physical birth or life, and for the growth of plants, also disorder or virtue ( 2009: 206). Sometimes the verb carries connotations of divine intent. Tian commissioned the swallow to ‘give birth’ to the father of the Shang, after which God appointed Tang its founder (BOP, ‘The Black Bird’). Di raised up the son and ‘founded’ the Shang. ‘The Multitudes’ (‘烝民;’ 260) begins with the forthright declaration that Tian ‘gave birth to the multitudes of people.’ The birth of Zhong Shanfu (仲山甫), a modest and hard-working Prime Minister, is divinely arranged so he could aid King Xuan (周宣王; 827-782 BC).  In ‘Little Happiness’ (‘小弁;’ 197), the poet notes that not only his parents, but Heaven also gave him birth (天之生我). In ‘Birth of the People’ (‘生民;’ 245), Jian Yuan offered pure sacrifice, ‘trod on a toe print made by God’ (Legge), became pregnant, and thus founded the Zhou people. In BOH, again, Tian gives birth to people and ruler, who thrive symbiotically (‘Announcement of Zhonghui’ [‘仲虺之誥], ‘Chief of the West’s Conquest of Li,’ 2 [‘西伯戡黎]). So both verbs often have to do with the founding of the state by divine initiative, sometimes in a supernatural way.  There is no sense of radical dichotomy.  Both can describe mundane or divine work to create political and physical order.  
It is not clear that any ancient Chinese possessed a full concept of creation from nothing. But given that the same verb is ascribed to the creative activity of Shang Di / Tian in earlier texts, and that in DDJ ‘birth’ is clearly a metaphor (what can it mean to ‘give birth’ to Heaven and Earth?[6]), its use not only at least vaguely suggests creation, it supports Yuan’s belief that Dao is intended as a functional equivalent to earlier theistic terms. Dao carries in DDJ precisely the kind of creative activity (whether sheng or zao) ascribed in the Classics to Shang Di and Tian. Yuan’s argument thus not only carries weight on its own terms, but also shows predictive power in analyzing use of theistic terms in the Classics. (2)
7.9 Trinity Clear references to Dao as triune could constitute a ‘smoking gun.  Yuan offers a three-fold argument to support a Trinitarian reading of Dao. First, he proposes that three mysterious characters in DDJ (‘Yixiwei’ 夷希微) derive from Hebrew for Yahweh, and refer to the Trinity. But the idea, also proposed by Bouvet, that linguistic similarities are due to cultural diffusion (Lundbaek 1991: 112), is impossible to take seriously. The Shang borrowed even such useful foreign technology as wheat and chariots, and loan words for novelties like ‘honey’ and ‘lion,’ slowly.[7] Despite ad hoc attempts to bridge the distance historically,[8] it defies belief that a single semiotic token could have crossed Central Asia alone to be embraced by a people living on the Yellow Sea as the name of their Supreme God. With general support, Xu throws cold water on the idea. He cites Don Richardson to make the interesting theological point that since there are many names for God in different cultures (Richardson 1984), and since Lao Zi is leery of naming Dao, there is no need to pin him down to a culturally-specified title: vagueness may suit his purposes, and the uncertainty he sometimes confesses.  
Secondly, Yuan cites Lao Zi’s mysterious, Dao gives birth to one, one gives birth to two, two gives birth to three, and three gives birth to all things’ ( 1997: 178). Thirdly and more broadly, he proposes that Lao Zi assumes an innately Trinitarian structure of reality, portraying Dao as ‘expression,’ ‘naming’ and ‘reality’ in ten or more chapters.[9] If you want to ‘reveal’ yourself to another, you must first exist (reality). Approaching the other party, you say, ‘I’m Li Hua’ (name), and she observes you (form). Form is projected manifestation of inner reality, the sense in which Jesus was the ‘true image’ of God (Hebrews 1:3). Thus Jesus’ death moves humanity as a mere myth would not, because we recognize it as ontologically real. Following Zhuang Zi, Yuan thus suggests a Trinitarian translation of DDJ 42:
Dao gave birth to one, one gave birth to two, two gave birth to three, three gave birth to all things:’ Dao existed before all things – this is his reality, which makes one. Dao was called Dao, this is His name, which makes two. The reality of Dao, which makes it possible to say His name, is because of his self-expression, which makes three. Dao, three yet also one, gave birth to and nourished all things ( 1997: 179-181).  
This is no doubt idiosyncratic and subjective. But it is interesting that Lao Zi described creation in terms of three. Perhaps a weaker term, like Richardson’s ‘redemptive analogy,’ might best describe the faint suggestion of trinity no doubt unconsciously invoked in this and other passages. This is no smoking gun, but if more positive evidence for Dao as God can be (and has been!) found, these passages may provide an interesting additional clue about Dao’s nature. (3/4)  
7.10 Personality Our central question may be whether Dao can plausibly be seen as personal. Here is it tempting to simply rely on the weight of contrary authority, as Xu largely does. Respondant R13, identified as a professor of Chinese culture at National Taipei University of Education, said, ‘We have known that the Dao in Laozi is impersonal’ (Xu 2006: 136-7). At one point, Xu simply notes that Dao is normally recognized as an impersonal force, so how could he ‘qualify as a life-giver?’ But Yuan reverses the syllogism: given that Dao is clearly presented as life-giver, why do scholars consider it impersonal? One must adjudicate the two positions on textual grounds.  
Yuan concedes Dao is not as personal as the God of the Bible. According to Yuan, numerous phrases in DDJ suggest Dao has life (1997: 140-2). It is called ‘mother’ (seven times, also Yuan suggests interpreting the expression ‘dine on the Mother’ in light of Jesus’ ‘eat my body and drink my blood’ [1997: 151-2]). It is faithful (21), merciful (51, 65), powerful (4, 37), loving (34, 67, 81), has authority (17), rewards and punishes (73, 74), civilizes (35, 43), is righteous (77, 79), forgives (62), and saves (27, 67). ‘All this is not ‘anthropomorphism,’ Yuan insists, but ‘theomorphism’ or (to translate his neologism literally) ‘Dao-morphism’ (1997: 143-5). Given the centrality of this claim, and the many subsidiary characteristics Yuan introduces under this rubric, we shall consider each passage in turn.  
But first, are there any ‘smoking guns’ challenging Yuan’s reading? The chapter most often cited to show Dao as impersonal is 5: ‘Heaven and Earth are not humane, but treat all things like straw dogs. The Sage is not humane, but treats the people like straw dogs.’ Chen argues: ‘This implies that Heaven and Earth have nothing more than a physical and actual existence and do not partake of human emotions.’ Citing Wang Bi and He Shanggong, he argues that Lao Zi ‘wholly rejects’ the theistic projection of human sentiment on the universe that had been the norm in China, ‘in favour of a mechanistic interpretation of the natural processes.’ 
DDJ 5 is absent from one early manuscript, and presents special problems. I will analyze it in depth in relation to the Sage, in Chapter Eight of this study.  For now, it’s worth emphasizing that a strong model is, in part, one that embraces as much of the textual data as possible. DDJ 5 should, therefore, be read in the context of the broader evidence Yuan cites, which we consider first. 
7.11 Rewards and punishes (赏罚) In DDJ 73 Lao Zi refers to Tian Dao (天之道不争而善胜 . . . 天网恢恢疏而不失). ‘God’s Way’ (as Blakney puts it) does not contend but is adept at victory. The Master Plan unfolds slowly, its mesh wide but enfolding all, so nothing is lost. Duyvendak tells us this refers to ‘what we would call the laws of Nature.’ Chen also offers a materialistic interpretation of this passage: Tian Dao ‘refers to the natural laws on which the cosmos operates,’ and the net of Heaven to ‘the scope or sphere of nature.’ He adds: 
Lao Tzu considers that the laws of nature are flexible in the sense that they are conducive to the natural development of all things. Further, these laws preserve a balance in the cosmos in which all things are complementary each to the other. As such, they do not allow of contention or conflict.  Man, in his conduct, should seek to emulate these laws (Chen 1977: 293).
But Dao is ‘adept’ at victory, responding, and ‘planning,’ betokening the sentient virtues of a sage-founder. Maybe Lao Zi thought ‘Nature’ possessed impersonal qualities, but Heaven and Earth emerge from Dao, which is before and pre-eminent to them. Both Yuan and Chen cite DDJ 74 in support of their conflicting models, which nicely brings the problem to point. Ames and Young translate the relevant passage: 
Now, to substitute for the executioner in putting others to death – this is called substituting for the master woodsman in felling trees.  Now, among those who would substitute for the master woodsman in felling trees, there are few indeed who escape injuring their own hands.  
As Chen points out, the error warned against here is generally thought to be usurping Tian Dao. The sentience of the referent is recognized in some translations with upper cases: ‘Master Carpenter,’ ‘Chief Executioner.’ Obviously both analogies suggest, on their face, that Dao is conscious. And how can one usurp an unconscious natural law?   
Chen attempts to support his case by citing ‘Nourishing the Lord of Life’ (養生), from Zhuang Zi: ‘In his birth, man comes according to a given time; in his death, he passes on according to a given time.’ Man should therefore accept the ‘cosmic balance’ or ‘power of nature,’ as Chen puts it.  But this parallel actually supports Yuan’s interpretation. When Lao Dan (traditionally identified with Lao Zi) dies at the end of this same chapter, his disciple Qin Shi does offer some such philosophical consolation. But the Power he credits over death is personal: 
The ancients described (death) as the loosening of the cord on which God () suspended (the life). 
Zhuang Zi did not find it demeaning to compare the Creator to a workman with calluses. Elsewhere he spoke of Him, with apparent affection, as a ‘Master Carpenter.’ Chen is right to recognize the connection between the anthropomorphisms of DDJ 74, and Zhuang Zi. But this is because Lao Zi seems to be making a similar point: there is one Judge over all, with powers of life and death. This point holds enduring relevance: rulers should not intimidate subjects by mass executions. With Zhuang Zi’s reflections in the background, it is reasonable to suppose that for Lao Zi, too, Dao’s power to end life does not preclude its essential goodness. (1/2)
7.12 Faithful Blakney renders the key phrase from DDJ 21, ‘In (Dao) are essences (), subtle yet real, embedded in truth ().[10] Yuan reads as 信实  ‘faithful’ (as often in classical literature). Most translators seem to agree that some quality or qualities of Dao are described as being reliable or possessing faith or truth (Chu, Zhu, Legge, Meyer), even ‘infallibility’ (Duyvendak), or are said to be testable (Lau). MacHovec elicits a more forensic interpretation, ‘The method is true and so there are signs of it.’ However, W. T. Chan points out that ‘essence’ itself suggests ‘intelligence, spirit, life-force’ (Chan 1963: 132). This passage thus belongs to category (3): it is no knockout blow for Yuan’s hypothesis, but given the creative and intentional activity of Dao already described, fits well with a concept of personal reliability.   
7.13 Graceful (恩德) In DDJ 51, all things are said to be produced and nourished by Dao, which therefore honour it.  While Dao produces, nourishes, brings to full growth, nurses, completes, matures, maintains, and overspreads the myriad things (the verbs Legge selects) it does not claim to possess them (不有). Some translators pick verbs even more pregnant with telos: ‘shelters’ (Lin); ‘protects . . . raises without lording it over them’ (Chu); ‘gives them life yet claims no possession’ (Lau).  There is some disagreement over whether Dao alone, or Dao and De, are the subject of all these verbs: either is grammatically feasible. These actions fit an interpretation of Dao as personal, or at least present a strikingly anthropomorphic view of the ‘laws of nature.’ (3) 
DDJ 65 describes those who skilfully practice and govern from Dao, not Dao itself, as Yuan recognizes in his translation. It therefore provides little or no evidence that Dao is personal. (4)
7.14 Powerful (大能) The noun neng can mean energy or competence, but Yuan may mean potentiality. The first passage he cites is DDJ 4, which offers anthropomorphic images of Dao as ‘honoured Ancestor () of all things,’ and (in Legge’s words) the famously enigmatic, ‘I do not know whose son it is. It might appear to have been before God.’ (A passage I will return to.) Lau, Chen, and Blakney also render zong ‘ancestor,’ while (in increasingly neutered tones) Duyvendak translates it ‘progenitor,’ Meyer ‘source,’ Lin ‘fountainhead,’ and Chu and MacHovec ‘origin.’ But the several oracle bone versions of the word show an ancestral tablet within a little temple ( 2009: 377), which fits its most common use in the Classics as referring directly or indirectly to ancestors, and therefore carrying connotations of sentience. No doubt Lao Zi’s paradoxical description of a ‘child’ who is an ‘ancestor’ is intended to startle, troubling our preconceptions of personality and its relationship to the ultimate. (3) 
The second passage Yuan cites, DDJ 37, is also paradoxical: Dao does nothing, but there is nothing it does not do. This by itself need not suggest personality, but the fact that Lao Zi ascribes this dialectic to both Dao and the Sage, reinforces the emerging pattern. (3)
The entire text of the DDJ at Mount Lao, 
beginning in this corner with a passage
that suggests the Tao-like Sage
is self-sacrificial.
7.15 Loving (有慈爱) As in DDJ 51, in 34 Dao produces the myriad things without showing off, which therefore obey it.  Literally, Dao ‘clothes, nourishes ten thousand things (yet) does not affect lordship.’ Duyvendak is evidently justified in saying Dao ‘loves.’ An impersonal object may, perhaps, clothe and nourish, but ‘not affecting lordship’ not only sounds intentional, we know that the Sage indeed chooses such a stance. (2)
Legge translates the last 18 characters of 67, ‘Gentleness is sure to be victorious even in battle, and firmly to maintain its ground. Heaven will save its possessor, by his (very) gentleness protecting him.’ Others translate here as ‘love’ (Chu, Lin, also 慈爱, ), ‘forbearance’ (Duyvendak), ‘compassion’ (Blakney), ‘pity’ (Waley), ‘commiseration’ (Young & Ames).  What is especially significant about this chapter is that Lao Zi begins by describing the greatness of Dao, and ends by speaking of how Tian saves one with compassion, the quality that Dao values. The word is used four times: in verses 2, 3, and 5, showing (though Lao Zi does not explain this overtly) in what Dao’s greatness consists, at least as manifest in human life. Chen interprets Tian as the laws of nature. Blakney interprets it here, more plausibly, as ‘God.’ The relationship between Tian and Dao here is similar to that between Shang Di and Tian in the Classics: the seamless movement from one to the other suggests identity. (1/2)
Yuan also claims the final verse of DDJ 81 shows Dao as loving. This chapter compares the action of Dao to the Sage, and ends, in Lau’s words: ‘The Way of Heaven benefits and does not harm; the way of the sage is bountiful and does not contend.’ Here three elements conspire to suggest personality:  the parallel between Sage and Dao, the use of potentially theistic Tian, and the apparently intentional choice of helpful over harmful action. (2)

7.16 Has Authority (有权柄) Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, and Robert Wright (Wright 2009) suggest different ways in which an unconscious ‘invisible hand’ might affect creative change. The ancient Chinese eventually developed a similar concept of emergent properties, related to Tian and Dao. But in DDJ 17, Lao Zi offers an analogy that suggests that creation emerges through personality: Dao is to rulers as rulers are to commoners: ruling in a low-key manner, but efficacious and meriting ‘trust’ or ‘faith’ (as most translators render xin here).  Again, the analogy suggests that this unobtrusive manner of rule is personal. (3) 
7.17 Teaches (有教化) In DDJ 35, Lao Zi says the ‘whole world’ will come to him who holds the ‘Great Image,’ obtaining peace and rest. The phrase 天下 suggests the normative pull of the Xia, Shang and Zhou civilization that drew northern tribes (Mang, Yi, Di) and rice-growing southern states (Chu, Wu, Yue) into an expanding political system. Lao Zi is obviously referring to sagely dynastic founders. What exactly rulers gain by yielding to the centripetal pull of sagely virtue is less clear. Legge translates the words as ‘rest, peace, and the feeling of ease,’ Chen, ‘contentment in concord and equanimity,’ and Chu, ‘tranquillity, equality and community.’ The hint here of community, and thus civilization, is faint, and the inference that Dao is teaching rather than being exploited as a resource, not clear from this passage. (3/4)
Yuan also cites DDJ 43, which refers to those few who obtain a ‘teaching without words.’ Even silent pedagogy, such as by Zen patriarch Bodhidharma who, according to legend, first silently faced a wall in a cave for nine years, then taught at Shaolin temple, seems to imply sentience. (3)  

7.18 Righteous (公義) DDJ 77 compares Heavenly and human ways. The former is like bending a bow, lowering the high (wealthy people), and raising the low (the poor).  Humans, by contrast, oppress the poor. The Sage should emulate the Way of Heaven, and ‘serve all under Tian.’ Chan and Chen both interpret Tian Dao again as ‘Nature’ and ‘the natural order of the universe,’ respectively, while Blakney translates it ‘God.’ A bow is inanimate, and thus may suggest an undirected process, but one should not stretch an analogy (or bow) too far. The act of preferring weak to strong, sometimes suggested in the Classics, differs starkly from the common pattern of Nature, and suggests consciousness and character. 
DDJ 79 reinforces this reasoning. I begin with Legge’s clunky but careful wording: 
In the Way of Heaven, there is no partiality of love; it is always on the side of the good man.  
Chen argues, ‘The expression “shows no partiality” has the same meaning as the phrase “Heaven and Earth are amoral” in DDJ 5 . . . Both are concepts depicting an indifferent natural force as the essential structure of the cosmos’ (Chen 1977: 306). But this is not an obvious translation of the phrase, nor do any other translators or commentators I consulted concur. Some point out that 天道无親 was already, as Lin put it, ‘an ancient quotation appearing in many ancient texts.’  
The exact expression varies, but the idea it expressed does, indeed, often appear in BOH documents, and once in BOP. In ‘Tai Jia’ 3 (‘太甲), Tang’s Prime Minister, Yi Yin (伊尹), says ‘Heaven is without prejudice (惟天無親),’ which aside from the missing Dao, is an almost exact parallel. (Yi adds that the spirits only accept sacrifices from those who do good.) In ‘Instructions of Yi’ (‘伊訓), Yi trades divine synonyms, ‘the Ways of Shang Di are not invariable (惟上帝不常),’ since he punishes the evil and rewards the good. In ‘Common Possession of Pure Virtue’ (‘咸有一德), Yi adds that good and evil do not strike people at random: Heaven sends misery or fortune (災祥) to those who deserve them, so the Mandate cannot be taken for granted (命靡常). In announcing (after divination) the move to Yinxu, Pan Geng points out that former kings could not even assume Heaven would allow the capital to stay in one place (猶不常寧; this would be the fifth Shang capital). Under the new regime, King Cheng (probably) makes a ‘Charge to Zhong of Cai’ 2’(蔡仲之命): ‘August Heaven has no partiality (皇天無親), but helps only the virtuous,’ using  無親 but as the predicate of ‘August Heaven’ rather than ‘Dao.’ The influential ode ‘Wen Wang’ justifies the same imperial transition by saying 天命靡常.
These passages, which closely parallel the passage in question in DDJ, all mean precisely the opposite of ‘Heaven is amoral.’ Lao Zi could not have been ignorant of the sentiment or so important a stock phrase.  I see his clearly intentional use of this phrase as a ‘Smoking Gun’ showing that he saw Dao as a just deity, parallel to Tian / Shang Di.  (1)
7.19 Forgives (赦罪) DDJ 62 describes Dao as ‘guarding’ () rather than ‘abandoning’ bad people (不善人; Ames and Young call them ‘incompetent,’ Chu and Blakney more plausibly, ‘sinners.’) The ancients valued Dao precisely because ‘the guilty’ (有罪) could escape punishment by it. This seems to mean that Dao is either morally indifferent or forgiving. In the context of other passages we have considered, the latter seems a better choice.  Chu thus translates, ‘It could be attained by seeking and thus sinners could be freed,’ and Lin calls Dao ‘the bad man’s refuge,’ which the ancients recognized would ‘search for the guilty ones and pardon them.’ (3) 
7.20 Saves (有拯救) Finally, Yuan suggests two chapters show that Dao ‘saves.’ In the first, 27, Lao Zi only says the Sage ‘is consistently skilful at saving people, and so does not abandon them.’ Since the Sage does reveal Dao’s character, keeping in mind Dao’s benevolent intentions and acts as described above, this adds some bulk to the basket. (3)
DDJ 67, which we have already discussed in a related connection, is more striking. Lao Zi begins by admitting that while the public recognizes its greatness, the Dao he teaches appears superficially inferior. Wielding kindness, economy, and self-deprecation, one can become the ‘chief vessel,’ (referring likely to a high position). Kindness also brings victory in battle, for ‘Heaven will save (the one who possess it), protecting him by this kindness.’ 

It is hard to escape intentionality here. Chu translates, ‘Heaven will save (he who defends with love), and protect him with love.’ Lin translates with his usual confident fluency, ‘Heaven arms with love those it would not see destroyed.’ Where is the amoral indifference in that?  This chapter can also be seen as a ‘smoking gun.’ (1) 
Dao, then, is self-existent and perhaps eternal. Personal metaphors are often used for it – Mother, Ancestor, Judge, Carpenter. Dao originates Nature in some sense parallel to Heaven ‘giving birth.’ It parents the political order as well, eschewing favouritism but deposing and appointing rulers by  merit.  It seems to act consciously, nourishes, protects, rewards the good, helps the weak, and shows mercy to sinners. Like Shang Di and Tian in the Classics, its divine action is mirrored in this world by the work of the Sage.  

7.21 Who Gave Birth to God? 

One of the most difficult passages to interpret here lies in DDJ 4.  Speaking of Dao, literally the passage reads:
I do not know whose son it is – before image Di (像帝之先).
Several translators, including Legge, take Di here to refer to God. (Also Blakney, Gu, and Lau, and Yan says 天帝, but Chu says ‘Nature,’ and Waley thinks this refers to the Yellow Emperor.) The preceding word xiang (normally, ‘be similar to’) is also mysterious. Yuan says some interpret it as a typo for shang, above – the modifier in Shang Di. If this is so, it sounds as if Lao Zi believed ‘God’ had an origin. Wang Bi, indeed, commented, ‘If Heaven and Earth cannot be compared with it, does it not ‘seem to have existed before Di?’ Di means the Lord of Heaven’ (Wang 1979: 15).

But this is the only time Di is used in Lao Zi, and one must be careful. In Zhuang Zi, which modern scholars see as closer in time to DDJ than Legge supposed, Zhuang Zi speaks of the di of south, north, and middle seas. Yuan points out that the di of the four directions are, like shen, limited entities, unlike the Biblical God or Lao Zi’s Dao (1997: 79). Yuan argues that Lao Zi is thus not here referring to an ultimate being (1997: 51). Since the term seemed to hold polytheistic connotations in parts of Zhuang Zi, one should not make rash assumptions about what Lao Zi intended in his one, enigmatic use of it. Nor is it clear why Lao Zi would fail to use ‘above’ () properly, as he does elsewhere. Indeed, Ames and Young translate Wang Bi’s comment: ‘the gods are the rulers of Heaven’ (Chen 1977: 68). This curious passage may even suggest that in part, Lao Zi may have used Dao precisely to emphasize the transcendence of the Ultimate, a connotation being lost from Di.
Yuan translates the phrase into modern Chinese: ‘I don’t know who created It, it comes before all di that have images’ ( 1997: 80). This is probably wrong, but it is surely right to doubt that Lao Zi means to repudiate the existence or transcendence of a Supreme Being here. Lao Zi recognized that one can overlook objects too large to see as well as too small: ‘The great sound is hard to hear, the great image lacks shape (41: 6-7). The sagely ruler accomplished things so effortlessly that commoners thought they occurred naturally.  He may here be expressing a sceptical view of contemporary ideas about a Di that had become too noisy and concrete. In general, it is certainly true that Lao Zi philosophizes about or ‘intuits’ the Ultimate with little heed to any ancestor or nature cult, even more focused on the ultimate character of the Supreme Being than Cleanthes in Hymn to Zeus

While seeing Dao as impersonal, Legge found DDJ ‘remarkable and tantalizing:’ Lao Zi promises to lead us ‘to the brink of a grand prospect, and then there is before us a sea of mist’ (Legge 1880: 212). John Wu reminded us, though, that when dealing with the Supramundane, material objects evoke that for which there can be no perfect mundane analogy:
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.  To Chuang Tzu, the whole universe is but a finger pointing to the Tao (Wu 1965: 70-71).
From the beginning (‘Dao spoken is not true Dao’), Lao Zi warns us that mundane words about transcendental reality must indeed be taken ‘analogically and evocatively.’ He or It (Wu proscribes either pronoun) is intrinsically iconoclastic, beyond the capacity of human symbols to adequately represent, ‘beyond personality’ as C. S. Lewis put it.[1] Christian theology of course also involves thinking about what cannot be fully comprehended, still less defined in bronze or wood.[2] Yet when something is comprehended, even weakly, one naturally seeks a coherent understanding of what one partially perceives. 

And this, I think, Yuan’s thesis helps find in DDJ. No theological argument against Dao as a partial synonym for God seems to carry much force, in light of how St. John used Logos. And there are good reasons why Lao Zi might have consciously or unconsciously transferred the attributes of Shang Di and Tian to 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, while Zhuang Zi’s faith (like that of Epictetus) remains an existentially relevant prelude of hopeful courage to a message of universal ‘good news.’ 
7.22 Argument from Classical Parallels

So one can plausibly argue, from its characteristics in DDJ, that Dao should be understood as God. The classical context behind DDJ provides additional reasons for this identification which Yuan does not explore.  Any educated man of the Warring States period would have been intimately familiar with the Classics, as is evident in SSA, Analects, and Mencius’ dialogues. The author of DDJ was certainly educated, even if not (as Sima Qian later claimed) an archivist in the Zhou capital. Vague references to sage-kings and (presumably Confucian) moralists set the work in an intellectual milieu formed and informed by those writings. 

The popular distinction between ‘god’ () and ‘ghost’ () was seldom clear-cut. When Di re-accrued polytheistic trappings in the late Zhou, one way to ‘respect spirits and gods, but keep one’s distance’ lexicologically, might have been to retool a term like Dao, that as we have seen had already evolved intense moral, political and spiritual significance, and invest theistic meaning into it. In one case, Lao Zi echoes BOP use of dao: The Great Way is level and easy, but people prefer shortcuts.[3] The wording is different, but one could hardly define the tension expressed in BOP 149, 162 and 197 more succinctly. Lao Zi’s use of Tian is surprisingly traditional: sometimes evidently a wilful being, as in the Classics, though Heaven and Earth together seem to refer to physical Nature. 
There are, then, strong reasons to credit Yuan’s hypothesis: (1) DDJ does, indeed, ascribe a range of divine characteristics to Dao. (2) The most prominent term for God during the late Zhou, Tian, is sometimes used in a theistic manner, in parallel and combination with Dao, as Tian and Shangdi are used interchangeably in earlier classics. (3) Read in the context of the Classics, several parallels suggest Dao may have served as a dynamic equivalent for archaic theistic terms. Dao dominates DDJ as Shang Di and Tian dominate the Classics, and borrows many of their functions. (4) As we will see in more detail in the following chapter, Dao is in DDJ to the Sage, very much as Shang Di and Tian are to Sage rulers in early canonical texts. (5) We also find a few ‘smoking gun’ type sayings in DDJ, such as ‘The Way of Heaven has no favourites, but is always on the side of the good person,’ clearly substituting Dao for Tian / Shang Di.

[1] This is the title of the third series of broadcast talks Lewis gave, and later published, now part III of Mere Christianity, ‘Beyond Personality: or First Steps in the Doctrine of the Trinity’ (Lewis 1952). Lewis’ image to depict the immutability of God’s personality was borrowed from the two-dimensional man in Edwin Abbott’s Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. 
[2] As we will see in Chapter Nine, Wilfred Smith offers a clever but (I will argue) misguided and self-defeating attempt to pin the label of ‘idolater’ on Christians who believe Christianity is ‘true, or final, or salvific’ (Smith 1987: 59). 

[1] Of the former, 46: ‘the story of the inner chamber cannot be told;’ of the latter, 97, 203, 237, 261.
[2] Legge tentatively suggests that he might be warning that, as the garden path abuts fields, so his own proximity to the officials he decries means that his troubles may [should?] overflow to them.
[3] I rely here on (Xu 2006: 50), for Watters, Carus, Cheng Lin, and Mair, and (Giles 1905); see two paragraphs subsequent for other translators and commentators. 
[4] For reasons I give in response to Ames and Hall in (Marshall 2002b: 24). The most important is that transcendence is largely a function of perspective: we describe an object, even God, as we see it, and if our vision is limited, subjective, or obscured, as it always is, then what we see appears imminant to that extent – as God often does, in both Chinese and Hebrew Scriptures. It is intellectually hazardous to assume that the perceiver assumed that what he perceived was all there was to perceive, still less that he assumed so correctly. 
[5] Wu avoids pedantry by simplifying matters somewhat: for Confucius, as we have seen, Dao was essentially moral truth.
[6] Explicitly sexual creation myths are of course common. But even in Gnostic stories like ‘On the Origin of the World,’ some of the wanton sexuality may be recognized as symbolic. 
[7] William Boltz suggests that the chariot, along with a few loan words, was borrowed from Tocharian speakers centered at such sites as Turfan, Karashahr, and Kucha in what is now the western Xinjiang (Boltz 1999: 84-87).  
[8] Popularized by (Kang & Nelson 1979), Raymond Petzholt attempts to support a diffusion model  (Petzholt 2000), without however providing much historical evidence. 
[9] DDJ, 1, 4, 6, 9, 14, 21, 25, 32, 41 and 42 ( 1997: 96,  181).
[10] 其中有精;其精甚真