By Daniel W. Petty
The Chinese religion of Taoism was founded by Lao Tzu, the details of whose life are shrouded in uncertainty, mystery, and legend. The traditional date of Lao Tzu’s birth is about 604 B.C. He was believed to have written the book setting forth the principles of Taoism in the sixth century B.C., though some scholars argue that it was not written until about 300 B.C., based on style and historical content. Some doubt whether Lao Tzu ever lived at all.
Lao Tzu is actually a title of respect meaning, “the old philosopher,” “the old fellow,” or “the grand master.” He is said to have held a government position as curator of the imperial archives in his native western Chinese state, and that around this occupation he lived a simple and undemanding life. Saddened by men’s disinclination to cultivate the goodness he taught, Lao Tzu finally abandoned his post in search of a life of simplicity. He concluded that life should be lived without honors and apart from the fruitless search for knowledge. Lao Tzu eventually left home on a water buffalo toward the western border, away from society.
Lao Tzu was stopped at the border by a friend who demanded that before he crossed over, he should write down his teachings, so that the civilization he was deserting would have a record of his beliefs. The product of three days’ writing was a small book titled Tao Te Ching or “The Way and Its Power.” This work of about 5000 words became the basis for the religion of Taoism.
Taoism is primarily restricted to China, where it is one of the officially recognized “Three Religions,” along with Confucianism and Buddhism. The number of adherents to Taoism has been estimated at 43 million (Hume 127).
Taoism is characterized by a mysterious, enigmatic teaching. The basic concept of Taoism is the Tao, which means the “way” or “path.” There are three basic senses in which this “way” can be understood. First, Tao is the way of ultimate reality, the ground of all existence. This ultimate reality is, however, an enigma, for if it can be understood or defined, then it is not the real Tao. It is essentially a mystery, beyond understanding or senses. As the author of the Tao Te Ching states, “Those who know don’t say, and those who say don’t know.” In this first sense, therefore, Tao can be known only through mystical insight, and cannot be translated into words. Second, Tao is the way of the universe. This means that it is somehow the ordering principle behind all life. Third, Tao is the way man should order his life in order to be in harmony with the way of the universe.
Life, according to the Tao, should be lived according to the principle of wu wei, or “creative quietude.” This is the practice which puts one’s life in harmony with Tao. It is best to avoid self-assertiveness, competition, or involvement. It is best to live naturally, spontaneously, and passively. Man should avoid aggressiveness, not only toward other men, but also toward nature. Taoism seeks to be in tune with nature, thus tending to condemn civilization and to idealize the simplicity of primitive society.
Taoism also teaches the doctrine of Yin and Yang, or the idea that reality exists in opposites. These opposites, with Yin as the negative and Yang as the positive, are seen in such examples as good and evil, life and death, or light and darkness. Yet these opposites are interdependent, since neither could exist without the other. This offers a cyclical explanation of all existence in which all being is involved in a continual state of change or flux. The key to Tao is harmonious interaction with Yin and Yang. The corollary to this idea is the relativity of all values. Taoism eschews all clear-cut distinctions between values such as right and wrong or good and evil. No perspective in this relative world can be considered as absolute. All values and concepts are ultimately relative to the mind that conceives them. Even good and evil, in Taoist perspective, lose their absolute character.
Taoism in the Light of the Bible
Our examination of the teachings of Taoism in the light of God’s Word will center around four main ideas.
The concept of God. The central religious teaching in the Tao Te Ching concerns one eternal, mystical, impersonal Supreme Being. Its activities and attributes are described as follows: “Original, primeval, before heaven and earth, the Ultimate, still, formless, unchanging, nameless” (25:1-4; Hume 139). “The Tao is inexpressible, unnamable, indescribably great” (1:1; Hume 13 9). While Lao Tzu did not teach a personal Supreme Being, his followers have recognized in their religious teacher a manifestation of the Divine Being (Hume 133). At times, Taoism has tended toward polytheism, demonolatry, witchcraft, and occultism.
The God of the Bible is personal. He creates and sustains his creation (Acts 17:24). Jehovah’s attributes are described as “true,” “living,” and “everlasting” (Jer. 10:10). The personality of God is summed up in the fact that he made himself known to man thorugh his Son (Jn. 1:18; Heb. 1:1-2). He is a God who loves and cares for his people and acts in their behalf, and who can in turn be known by them (Heb. 8:11-12).
The Concept of Mystical Truth. Taoism diminishes the concept of truth by making it something that is enigmatic, mysterious, and hidden. The Absolute is itself unknowable, except by knowing its operations in the world. It is “to be known solely by intuition” (Hume 139). That which is called “the way” (Tao) is also mystical, and therefore, beyond the ability of anyone to communicate it by teaching.
The Word of God not only identifies truth as originating with God, but affirms that this truth may be known by man. The Psalmist declared, “The sum of Thy word is truth” (119:160). Jesus prayed in behalf of his disciples, “Sanctify them in the truth; Thy word is truth” (Jn. 17:17). The key to true discipleship, he taught, is to abide in his word: “and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (Jn. 8:31-32). Truth is absolute, and its opposite is falsehood (Rom. 1:25). The intimate relationship between truth and deity is demonstrated by the fact that when God revealed his Son, he revealed the truth (Heb. 1:1-2). Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (Jn. 14:6).
The Concept of Relative Values. Taoism’s doctrine of Yin and Yang resulted in a confusion of values and the denial of any absolutes. Such naturally follows from the premise that neither God nor truth can be absolutely known. The result is a doctrine of the relativity of all values. There is no absolute good or evil, but all values are relative to the mind of the one who entertains them.
Perhaps the best answer to the Taoist denial of absolute values is the scriptural teaching on the holiness of God. God by nature is perfect holiness. The imperative that constantly issues from the truth is that man is intended to share in or imitate God’s absolute holiness. Peter exhorted, “but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior” (1 Pet. 1:15). Paul admonished, “Let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1). If it is our calling to be “holy and blameless” before him (Eph. 1:4), then there must be some absolute values of goodness and holiness which we are to pursue, and evil things we are to flee. Indeed, the only way to conceive of sin is to understand some standard of righteousness which man has failed to follow (1 Jn. 3:4).
Ethics. The ethical ideal of Taoism is a quiet, restful simplicity. It is an ethic based on the principle of inactivity or indifference. The Tao Te Ching says, “Aim at extreme disinterestedness, and maintain the utmost possible calm” (16: 1; Hume 140). The characteristic phrase wu wei means “non-striving” or “inactivity.” “Only quiet non-striving is successful” (29:1; Hume 140).
This principe of inactivity leads, in the first place, to a negative ethic of withdrawal from society and from all conflict. The word of God stresses the principle that the Christian life is a life of striving, fighting, and running. Jesus said, “Strive to enter by the narrow door” (Lk. 13:24). “Fight the good fight of faith,” Paul admonished (1 Tim. 6:12). The Hebrews writer urged us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (12:1). These are not the words of ” extreme disinterestedness ” or of ” quiet non-striving. ” The Christian’s calling in this world is not indifferent withdrawal, but positive influence for good. Jesus spent his life going about doing good (Acts 10:38). He taught,his disciples to fulfill their role in the world as salt that savors and light that enlightens, as we show our good works (Matt. 5:13-16). “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” Paul said (Rom. 12:21). We must not tire of doing good in this world (Gal. 6:9; 2 Thess. 3:13).
On the other hand, Taoism stresses such qualities as humility, passivity, and returning good for evil. “To those who are good to me, I am good; and to those who are not good to me, am also good” (49:2; Hume 130). “Recompense injury with kindness” (63:1; Hume 130). These ethical principles have often been compared to the teachings of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. The fundamental difference however, is that Jesus Christ taught these principles in connection with a personal God who practiced the same (Matt. 5:38-48). One wonders, moreover, how the Tao can expect man to know good if there are no such values that are absolutely good.
Robert E. Hume summarized the basic elements of weakness in Taoism as follows:
Its not efficiently personal and responsible Supreme Being.
Its founder’s positively ignoble example of withdrawing from difficulty; not organizing for reform.
Its inadequate recognition of the evils in the world.
Its inadequate appreciation of physical facts and resources, discouraging to scientific inquiry.
Its over-emphasis on inactivity (wu-wei), belittling to human effort.
Its lack of a commanding enthusiastic principle for living; mostly negative advice.
Its ethical ideal of indifference and irresponsibility.
Its inadequate conception of immortal life; merely a protracted existence.
Its lack of a programme for the uplift of society; only a return to an uncivilized simplicity.
Its relapse into polytheism, demonolatry, and practice of magic (144-5).
The religion of Taoism is based on the teachings of a founder whose every existence in history is questionable. It teaches of a Supreme Being that is impersonal and unknowable. It conceives of truth as an enigma that is ever elusive. Its notion of relative values and its ethic of non-activity are inherently negative. Taoism not only fails to meet real human needs, but constitutes a perversion of the most fundamental truths about the one true and living God.
Hume, Robert Earnest. The World’s Living Religions. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950.
McDowell, Josh and Don Stewart. Understanding NonChristian Religions. San Bernardino, CA: Here’s Life
Publishers, Inc., 1982.
Smith, Huston. The Religions of Man. New York: Harper & Row, 1958.
Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 10, pp. 312-314
May 17, 1990