The Te of Jesus

Older than Taoism is the idea that pride invites a fall, that the axe falls first on the tallest tree. But it was Taoism that first welded these ideas together into a system in which the unassertive, the inconspicuous, the lowly, the imperfect, the incomplete become symbols of the Primal Stuff that underlies the kaleidoscope of the apparent universe.

It is as representatives of the “imperfect” and the “incomplete” that hunchbacks and cripples play so large a part in Taoist literature. To be perfect is to invite diminution; to climb is to invite a fall. Tao, like water, “takes the low ground”. … Water, as the emblem of the unassertive, and the “low ground”, as the home of water, become favourite images.1

Since I enjoyed The Tao of Pooh, I decided to read Benjamin Hoff’s other little book, The Te of Piglet, as well.

Te of Piglet coverTe is a Chinese word meaning “power” or “virtue”. As a Taoist principle, te suggests that the small (e.g. Piglet) are paradoxically more powerful than the big. This is the ideal described in the Arthur Waley quote at the head of this post, which holds up the unassertive, the inconspicuous, and the imperfect as those who possess the Tao in greatest measure.

Christian readers will recognize immediately that this principle is a point of correspondence between Taoism and the Gospel. According to the Tao Te Ching, “The wise may become great by becoming small”; according to Jesus, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Benjamin Hoff holds up Piglet as an example of te:

“What happens when the Heffalump comes?” asked Piglet tremblingly….

“Perhaps he won’t notice you, Piglet,” said Pooh encouragingly, “because you’re a Very Small Animal.”

But Piglet, despite his small size, later emerges as a hero. (Owl’s house topples over one Blustery Day, with Owl, Pooh, and Piglet trapped inside. It is Piglet who squeezes out through the letter slot to obtain help.)

We might similarly speak of the te of Jesus, who is described as meek and lowly:  lowly insofar as he was born into an inconsequential family; meek insofar as his submission to the will of God was perfect — as was his submission to the cruelty of those who executed him.

Personally, I find the parallels between Taoism and Christianity fascinating. I have added a selection of quotes from Taoist literature to my sidebar. And here, for those who are interested, are some more conceptual parallels:

1. Non-resistance:

Tao Te Ching2
Do not conquer the world with force, for force only causes resistance. … Yield and prevail. … Nothing in the world is more yielding and gentle than water. Yet it has no equal for conquering the resistant and the tough. The flexible can overcome the unbending; the soft can overcome the hard.

New Testament3
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. … You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.

Repay no one evil for evil. … Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

2. Non-violence:

Tao Te Ching
The violent die violently — that is the foundation of my teaching.

New Testament
And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”

3. Humility:

Tao Te Ching
Displaying self-righteousness, one reveals vanity. Praising the self, one earns no respect. Exaggerating achievements, one cannot long endure.

New Testament
Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.

Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

4. Contentment / Anxiety:

Ko Hung
The contented man stays in a small cottage and associates with the simple. He would not exchange his worn clothes for the imperial robes, nor the load on his back for a four-horse carriage. … To him the ten thousand possessions are dust in the wind. … He acts in true freedom. What can competition for honors mean to him? What attraction can anxiety and greed possibly hold? Through simplicity he has Tao, and from Tao, everything. … When he looks up, it is not in envy. When he looks down, it is not with arrogance.

New Testament
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven…. You cannot serve God and money. Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? … Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? … Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow.

5. Social reversal:

Tao Te Ching
Know the masculine, but keep to the feminine. … Return to the infant state.

New Testament
There is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” … [He answered], “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

6. Servant leadership:

Tao Te Ching
Why is the sea the king of ten thousand streams? Because it lies beneath them. Therefore, if the great man would rule the people, he must put himself below them. If he would lead them, he must put himself behind them. Then they will neither feel oppressed by his weight nor threatened by his prominence. The world will delight in pushing him forward, and will never tire of him.

The great man does not strive against others, so others do not contend with him. The ancients said, “Yield and prevail.” Is that a worthless saying? Put it into practice, and all things will come to you.

New Testament
A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.”

Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name….

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

1Arthur Waley, The Way and Its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and Its Place in Chinese Thought, p. 56.

2Quotations from Taoist texts are the translations of Benjamin Hoff in The Te of Piglet.

3New Testament quotations are from the English Standard Version of the Bible.

God’s existence and the problem of evil

A couple of days ago, Andrew Sullivan quoted Einstein. The quote begins with some statements that could be taken as an endorsement of religion. But it continues with this:

The main source of the present-day conflicts between the spheres of religion and of science lies in the concept of a personal God. … In their struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God.

One of Sullivan’s readers has responded with an anecdote:

The trouble is, what does Einstein mean by “personal God”? If, by this, he means the interventionist Santa Claus figure to whom we dutifully give a list of wants and demands every time we pray, then I am totally with him and think Christianity should have abandoned this God long ago. But if, by “give up the personal God” he means abandon a God who relates to each individual on a spiritually intimate level, then I can’t go that far.

I myself suffer from a somewhat crippling anxiety disorder, and there have been several times when I have called on God for help and felt something indescribable comforting me. I didn’t receive a magic-cure-all that made everything better again. I did, however, receive a spiritual companionship to help me endure the worst the illness had to offer.

If atheists accuse me of being weak, I say to them “you’re exactly right, I can’t fight this illness by myself.” Fate is going to throw everyone some pretty unsavory curve balls sooner or later. Christianity is unique in that it tells us we don’t have to face those curve balls alone.

Meanwhile, over on Jewish Atheist’s blog, there has been a rather compelling argument against God’s existence grounded in the problem of evil. (An aside to JA: you should have left out the bit about acts of charity, which only deflected your argument away from its main point.)

Yes, the problem of evil is so familiar as to constitute a somewhat trite argument against Christianity. But the problem is real and intractable:  and many Christians respond mostly by looking the other way.

Sullivan’s reader doesn’t address the problem of evil. He’s responding to a different sort of challenge. But I would like to add two interpretive glosses.

First, everything we know about life and the cosmos traces back to our subjective experiences. Here’s an interesting statement of the concept from the Tao Te Ching:

What a man desires to know is that [i.e. the external world]. But his means of knowing is this [i.e. himself].1

I thought this was a modern (even post-modern) insight:  it’s all the rage in the university climate. So I was a little surprised to see it expressed so deftly in such an ancient source (c. 3rd century B.C.E.)

All knowledge is ultimately subjective. I emphasize the point because I know sceptics will respond by saying, That’s anecdotal evidence, and therefore worthless.

There’s no reason you should be convinced by someone else’s experience, of course. But the experience is real to him (her?) and it is not, in fact, worthless. Don’t make the naive mistake of assuming that you’re somehow different: that your worldview is objective, scientific, and non-anecdotal!

Second, I offer the anecdote as an important part of the Christian response to the problem of evil. Yes, there is suffering in this world. And no, we don’t have an adequate explanation of how such suffering can be reconciled with the existence of a personal, omnipotent (sovereign), loving God.

But let’s look at the countervailing data. Literally millions of people have had experiences similar to the one recounted above. We suffer, but God visits us in our suffering to offer extraordinary comfort. This has been one of the hallmarks of Christianity from its inception — that is, from the time of Christ’s own suffering:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction…. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. (2Co. 1:3-5)

It takes faith to believe in God despite the reality of human misery. Christians are not unaware of the problem:  it has confronted Christianity since Christ’s crucifixion.

The experience described above — of sublime comfort in the very teeth of suffering — is commonplace among Christians, and not to be dismissed reflexively.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

1Translated, including the interpretive remarks in square brackets, by Arthur Waley in The Way and Its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and Its Place In Chinese Thought, p. 47. For a little more of the quote, see my sidebar.

Hitched

signing

MaryP will likely put up a photo on her blog shortly. They aren’t from the “official” photographer, so there are some better shots yet to come.

Medieval wedding ceremony

MaryP and I have been thinking about wedding ceremonies recently. I was googling a particular phrase ("all spiritual benediction and grace") when I came across a reconstruction of the medieval wedding ceremony.

medieval wedding gif

If this was my preferred wording, I think MaryP would lose much of her enthusiasm for marriage. I bet she would call the wedding off!

The ceremony is asymmetrical:  the man says one thing, the woman another. First, there are the notorious lines where the woman promises to serve and obey her husband (whereas he pledges to comfort her):
 

Man’s vows Woman’s vows
Wilt thou have this Woman to be thy wedded wife, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her, in sickness and in health; and forsaking all other, keep thee only unto her, so long as ye both shall live? Wilt thou have this man to be thy wedded husband, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou obey him, and serve him, love, honour, and keep him in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live?

 
OK, everybody’s familiar with that bit. We’ll pass over it in solemn silence. To insert a cheap joke here might be a risky venture, what with the wedding merely hours away.

Then there’s the line, “Who giveth this Woman to be married to this Man?” I’m not sure how this is supposed to work when it’s a second marriage. But again, it’s best to move along post haste.

I had never heard of the next bit. Get a load of these vows:
 

Man says Woman says
I, Stephen, take thee MaryP to my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, for fairer or fouler, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us depart, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereunto I plight thee my troth. I, MaryP, take thee Stephen to my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to be bonny and buxom at bed and at board, to love and to cherish, till death us depart, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereunto I plight thee my troth.

 
To be bonny and buxom? At bed and at board? I almost want to include it in the ceremony just to see whether MaryP can say it with a straight face. But I suspect the whole event would quickly disintegrate at that point.

All in all, the medieval wedding ceremony is not for us. But I do love the traditional benediction, which is what I was looking for in the first place:

God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, bless, preserve, and keep you; the Lord mercifully with his favour look upon you; and so fill you with all spiritual benediction and grace, that ye may so live together in this life, that in the world to come ye may have life everlasting. Amen.

When the Reverend pronounces those words over the two of you, you have been blessed!

That about says it

  1. I started out with nothing and still have most of it left.

  2. Nice perfume:  must you marinate in it? (This one’s for Bill.)
  3. The meek shall inherit the earth, but not til we’re through with it. (I fear this one is true.)
  4. Failure is not an option:  it comes bundled with the software. (I know this one is true.)
  5. If I want to hear the pitter-patter of little feet, I’ll put shoes on my cat. (This one’s for MaryP.)
  6. Meandering to a different drummer.
  7. Don’t bother us — we’re living happily ever after. (This one’s for MaryP and me, effective Monday.)

Apple Patent

An interesting notion presented in this article. Just thought I would share it with you.

The feature would likely be pretty buggy and aggravating at first, but it could be worked into something incredible! I think the most amusing thing that’s mentioned here is the accelerometer in Macbooks, though. I had no idea, but it’s a really cool idea!

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