Faith & Worship: In the beginning was the Tao?

Published 8:00 am Thursday, December 27, 2018

When the Gospel of John was being translated into the Chinese language the translators met with great difficulty in finding a way to translate “Word” as in the opening of John’s gospel; “In the beginning was the Word” (Greek, “Logos”).  After a lengthy search they finally arrived at what they thought would best capture the meaning of Word. They chose the word “Tao”. Thus the Chinese version of the Gospel of John opens “In the beginning was the Tao”.

Yet “Word” and “Tao” are not equivalent.  To begin with, the Tao, according to the founder of Taoism, Lao-Tzu,(ca. 600 B.C.E.) existed before the Word. It was and is the source behind all words and all reason. It is nameless yet the “mother of all that is named”.

But there is another more important and fundamental difference between the world view of Taoism and the Gospel according to John. It has to do with how the two religions view the forces of light and dark.

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Joseph Campbell once said in a interview with Bill Moyers “in the West we are invited to put ourselves on the side of light and fight against the forces of darkness”.  In the three great religions of the West, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the forces of darkness represent evil and are embodied in the person of Satan.  God represents the forces of light and according to John, “in God there is no darkness”.(I John 1:5)

According to the religions of the West the two forces are irreconcilable.  For Christianity the only resolution to the conflict between the two forces is a great and final battle, Armageddon, in which the forces of light will conquer and destroy the forces of darkness.

The central symbol of Taoism is known as the Yin/Yang. It is a circle divided into two halves or fishes. The two halves originally referred to the shady and sunny side of mountains. The Yin represents the dark side, which is yielding, wet, passive and feminine. The Yang represents the light side which is aggressive, dry, active and masculine. The two represent complementary polarities that are found within all natural systems.  They are not diametrically opposed and could be comparable to the atom with both its positive and negative charge. Each contains elements of the other and their “interaction provides the creative and dynamic force behind the changes that occur in the natural world.”  Life is a matter of balancing the energies of the Tao.  It would not make sense to a Taoist if he/she were told they much choose either side over against the other. The Tao tends toward harmony and balance not extremes. Extremes will automatically trigger corresponding backlash and lead to catastrophic consequences that will restore harmony.

The dark force will dominate for a time then give way to the light force.  For a Taoist things are not always black and white but mostly grey. Thus a Taoist is reluctant to pass judgment as to whether something is “good” or “bad”.  The saying “every dark cloud has a silver lining” would resonate for a Taoist.

We in the West could learn a thing or two from Taoism.  For one we could learn to use the word “evil” with much caution especially when it comes to using it as a label for those who are different form us or who disagree with us. And rather or not we like to admit it each of us contain the light and the dark -or if you prefer the good and the evil.

And we would fair better if we spent less time passing  judgment on “them” and more time examining the log in our own eye.

The Rev. Ernest Mills, Thermal Belt Unitarian Universalists Fellowship