The Tao of Christmas
I do not choose to celebrate Christmas, but as an American it’s hard not to. Christmas is now as much a secular holiday as a Christian one.
Like many other Spiritual Naturalists, I was brought up Christian but grew to find Christianity both spiritually unsatisfying and intellectually unpalatable. Amongst the many things I found objectionable was its personifications of natural law. Around the same time, I discovered the Eastern religions, and in them, particularly Taoism, I found a spiritual philosophy both deeply satisfying to my soul and not in conflict with my reasoning mind (ignoring some of the peripheral bits).
I don’t celebrate Christmas, yet I must admit that the season still has a certain hold over me. I have good childhood memories of Christmas and I applaud the sentiments of good will and peace towards all expressed at this time. Also, the winter solstice seems a proper time to celebrate the season’s turning from maximum darkness to increasing light. And, I rather like the central image of the Christian holiday, the birth of Christ.
Away in a Manger
The central image of Christmas, the incarnation of God into the history of the world, is the epitome of personalizing. That the being responsible for the creations of the “firmament of heaven” is also the babe in the manger is crazy, but an appealing kind of crazy if one reads it mythically rather than literally.
As a myth, I think most Taoists can find something pleasing about the central Christmas image. The idealization of the baby speaks to an idea easy for Taoists to relate to. The first lines of chapter 55 of the Tao Te Ching are translated by Stephen Mitchell as “He who is in harmony with the Tao, is like a newborn child.” The first part of chapter 76 is translated by Ellen Chen as:
“At birth, a person is soft and yielding, at death hard an unyielding.
All beings, grass and trees, when alive, are soft and bending,
When dead they are dry and brittle.
Therefore the hard and unyielding are companions of death,
The soft and yielding are companions of life.”
The babe in a manger is an apt symbol of the Taoist ideal of living in a humble, open, flexible and yielding manner.
A Child Is Born Unto Mary
The divine child is born of Mary, and the simple logic of this statement means that Mary is the Mother of God. Taoism avoids personifications of the divine, but in the instances where personalizing language is used, the Tao is presented as feminine. In the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching we are told that the “Tao is the mother of all things” and this idea is repeated in chapters 25 and 52. Chapter 51 tells us that Tao gives birth to Te, which gives shape to the world. In chapter 6, Tao is characterized as the Valley Spirit and the Dark Mare and in several chapters it is associated with water and darkness, both qualities of “yin,” the feminine principle, in Taoist symbology.
Like Taoism, the image of the birth of Jesus is suffused with a feminine and earthy quality, something rarely encountered in other aspects of the religions of the Levant. The benign presence of animals in this scene adds to its earthiness. The quality of yin is more to be found in the Christmas scene than just about anywhere else in the Bible.
Although perhaps a little more of a reach, the divine birth is also an apt symbol of what is perhaps the most central concept of Taoist ethics, wu-wei, non-doing. Perhaps no idea of Taoism is more alien to the West than the idea that a minimization of action can be the best way to accomplish one’s ends. The development of a child inside its mother provides a wonderful example of the principle. It requires no special “doing” on the part of the mother. Nature takes care of the baby’s development and the changes necessary in the mother’s body to give birth and to provide the child nourishment. The Tao can be characterized as a kind of “intelligence” within Nature that enables it to self-organize into things as marvelously complex as a human life. The divine child born beneath the stars is an apt symbol of the ease and naturalness with which the Tao accomplishes its ends.
In the Beginning Was the Logos
One reason Taoism avoids personifications of the divine is that one cannot personalize the Tao for the same reason that one cannot speak the Tao, the Tao is unknowable and unspeakable. It is the mystery of being. But one can, I think, personalize Te, which is the second most central concept in Taoism. In fact, the relation of Tao and Te might well be personalized in the idea of God and God’s son. Tao is the un-manifested source of creation; Te is the manifested creative process. But much like the mystery of the trinity, Tao and Te are different principles and yet also the same.
Te is the principle that brings regularity and shape to the world. It is something like the Greek idea of logos. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is called the Logos. This is often translated as “the word,” but it can also be translated as the source of regularities in the world – the way it is used as a root in such words as “biology” and “psychology.” In this sense, we might translate Te as Logos. In chapter 51 of the Tao Te Ching we are told that Tao gives birth to Te. The birth in Bethlehem is an apt personification of this statement.
Peace on Earth
In its institutional forms, Christianity is about as different from Taoism as you can get. Yet, I think that the message of the historical Jesus has many Taoist characteristics.
Jesus said, “And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit unto the measure of his life? And why are ye anxious concerning raiment. Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” This passage from Matthew, except for its reference to Solomon, would not seem out of place in the Tao Te Ching. The Christian idea of giving oneself over to the divine will, that which the lilies do naturally, is the same basic idea as the return to the Tao, though clothed in different raiment.
Again, Jesus said, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” The sentiment here would also be much applauded by a Taoist, though I think a Taoist might interpret it a little differently than is typically done by a Christian. A Christian might applaud the strength of virtue it takes to show love to a person considered an enemy.
The Taoist, on the other hand, would recognize that it is only attachment to our own field of action that makes us consider anyone an enemy. The enemy is one who threatens that to which we are attached: no attachment, no enemy. So the Taoist might say. “Love your enemies and pray for them that you might learn the nature of your attachment that has made of you an enemy-creating fool.” Considering that it is actually impossible to love your enemies – you can only truly love by overcoming enmity itself, which is to say by ceasing to find in the other any reason for enmity – the Taoist interpretation might actually be closer than the traditional Christian interpretation to what Jesus was trying to get at here.
While many of the sayings attributed to Jesus are in accord with Taoism, many are not. While the image of divine birth may harmonize with Taoist sentiment, the images of God triumphant – God as king or emperor – do not. And the passage from chapter 76 that I quoted above, that “the soft and yielding are companions of life,” is given a particular poignancy when we contemplate that other central image of Christianity, the hard and unyielding cross.
Good Will Towards All
For a Christian, the later events of the story of Jesus are key to the redemption of humanity. The Taoist believes the world, and humanity as part of the world, is what it is and has no need of redemption. I agree here with Taoism. But I live in a country dominated by Christians, I am part of an extended family even more dominated by Christians. Although I see it from a rather foreign point of view, at least I can share with Christians the sense of beauty and meaningfulness in the Christmas story and its central image of the divine incarnated in the world.
In the spirit of the season, I hope for each Christian, and every other kind of person in the world, that the peace that goes by many names – God, Tao, Nature, Allah, Brahma, and others – will settle deep into their soul and guide them forward in the increasing light.
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