A favorite term in popular American spirituality these days is the Chinese word tao.  Authors express New Age sentiments in books entitled The Tao of Pooh, The Tao of Love and Sex, Awaken Healing Energy Through the Tao, or even 365 Tao: Daily Meditations.  The Dao De Jing, the enigmatic little book written some three hundred years before Christ that, in theory at any rate, served as the basis for the Taoist religion and philosophy (two very different things), has been translated several times in recent years to meet a continuing curiosity about this paradoxical and witty take on life.

What most people don't realize is that the term tao is not an inherently monistic or occultic term.  In fact, some of its earliest connotations are remarkably similar to some of the basic teachings of the New Testament.  I believe the tao, properly understood,  finds its fullest articulation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Tao is the ancient Chinese word for "way," "path," or "road," a meaning it still retains.  Later, the term was expanded by Confucius to refer to the moral absolutes by which a person should govern his life and efforts to learn.  (Similar to how C. S. Lewis uses the term in Abolition of Man.)  Tao to Confucius also seem to refer to something even stronger: a kind of Gospel, a message of truth that, having once heard, would render one's life worth living.  ("To hear the tao in the morning, and to die in the evening, is enough.")  Confucius seemed to be looking for some great leader who would "bring a benefit to all the people" from the Supreme God, perhaps sacrificing his own life in the process.  He did not believe a person who fit this criteria had lived in the past, and noted wistfully that "A holy person (sage) is not mine to see."

Confucius, who seems to be the first person to use tao in a metaphorical sense, was in many ways quite close to the Christian tradition.  The ultimate God, whom he called Tian or Di, was personal, but distant.  He believed in a God who answered prayer, who ruled over the affairs of humanity, and who might send a savior some day who would bring salvation to all humanity.

Later, Lao Zi picked up on the term to describe the ultimate principle through which the universe came into being and from which it continues to derive reality.  Another term used by Lao Zi to describe the tao was zizaizhi, "That (or The One) who has existence in itself."  This is similar to the Old Testament explanation God gave Moses of Who He was. "I am That I Am," He is, in other words, the only being that has existence from and in Himself, rather than deriving it from prior sources. Or in the New Testament phrase Paul borrowed from a Greek philosopher, "In Him we live and move and have our being."

The question of whether this term was thought of in pantheistic, non-personal terms, or as a Creator who stands separate from his creation, is in my opinion not of ultimate significance.  It is probably true that the tao did not reveal itself as personal to Lao Zi, though some passages of the DaoDejing cause me to wonder. (See some surprising referrals from the Rig Veda, DaoDejing, and Analects.)  But at the same time, the essence of Lao Zi's understanding of his revelation was that it was limited.

I believe Confucius, and perhaps Lao Zi, were looking for Jesus.  Maybe they've found Him by now.

The early Christians were called "People of the Way."  Jesus himself said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life." The first of these terms is translated, in Chinese, as the tao. The Gospel of John opens by describing Christ as existing in the beginning with God, and as God, using the Greek term logos to describe Him.  This term also is translated, in the Chinese Bible, by the word tao -- very astutely and correctly, I think.Then, the writer of John says, in a phrase that is very probably the most startling ever spoken or written by any human:  "The tao became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.  We also beheld his glory, the glory of the only begotten Son of God."

Those who follow Jesus, then, are also Taoists, in the richest and the most challenging sense of the word.

What Is the Tao?
By David Marshall
Copyright (c) 2000 by David Marshall.