Thursday, 14 November 2013

Christian Taoism

The Catholic Encyclopedia describes the heresy of Quietism as follows:
"Quietism (Latin quies, quietus, passivity) in the broadest sense is the doctrine which declares that man's highest perfection consists in a sort of psychical self-annihilation and a consequent absorption of the soul into the Divine Essence even during the present life. In the state of "quietude" the mind is wholly inactive; it no longer thinks or wills on its own account, but remains passive while God acts within it.... In its essential features Quietism is a characteristic of the religions of India. Both Pantheistic Brahmanism and Buddhism aim at a sort of self-annihilation, a state of indifference in which the soul enjoys an imperturbable tranquillity. And the means of bringing this about is the recognition of one's identity with Brahma, the all-god, or, for the Buddhist, the quenching of desire and the consequent attainment of Nirvana, incompletely in the present life, but completely after death. Among the Greeks the Quietistic tendency is represented by the Stoics."
The Sacrament of the Present Moment or Abandonment to Divine Providence, a spiritual classic ascribed to Jean-Pierre de Caussade SJ, teaches a doctrine very close to Quietism. How does it differ? I suspect the difference may be found in that between "passivity" and "receptivity" – Abandonment teaches receptivity before God, not the pure passivity which would imply dissolution of the individual personality. (The difference between these concepts is not always clear, and in theology has only been explored properly in modern times by writers such as David L. Schindler and others in the Communio school, where it forms an important theme. I have tried to summarize it in my chapter on the Trinity in The Radiance of Being.)

Caussade seeks "a free and active co-operation which is, at the same time, infused and mystical". It is an active co-operation because a merely passive one would leave the human person unchanged and imperfect, unrepentant and unhappy. For Caussade, God loves the human person and brings us to perfection through grace, with which we must cooperate perfectly by the time we reach
heaven. God's providence rules all things, even integrating the evil it permits to happen within a design we cannot perceive (the "felix culpa" principle). We know this from Scripture, where we read that "in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28). This is the key to the entire doctrine of Abandonment.

Abandonment is a Christian Tao Te Ching. In Chinese tradition Taoism was the mystical complement to Confucianism supposedly founded by the sage Lao Tse (or Laozi), a contemporary of Pythagoras, roughly in the sixth century BC. The Tao Te Ching (Daodejing) dates back at least to the fourth century. It consists of a series of aphoristic chapters that summarise the wisdom of non-action (wu wei), and the virtues of simplicity, patience, and compassion. Detachment from ego lets the world as a whole act through you and the natural order assert itself. In Abandonment there is a similar sense of the return to Eden, to primordial innocence – though, of course, with a recognition that this is made possible by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

The Tao Te Ching famously begins:

The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth.
The named is the mother of myriad things.

Thus, constantly without desire, one observes its essence;
Constantly with desire, one observes its manifestations.
These two emerge together but differ in name.
The unity is said to be the mystery;
Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders.

The Tao is the Way, the metaphysical "Principle"of all things – the equivalent of the Greek Logos, enabling us to translate it as "Word". A book by Hieromonk Damascene called Christ the Eternal Tao does just this, paraphrasing the entire Tao Te Ching on the assumption that Christ is the incarnate Tao, whose nature was known only obscurely by Lao Tse and is now manifest to all. (For a series of substantial extracts from this amazing book see the blog Pax Vobiscum, beginning here.)

The Tao Te Ching tells us to be like water, seeking the lowest place; to act without seeking reward. The Shrine of Wisdom translation of chapter 28 reads in part: "He who his inner Glory knows, but still his lowness keeps, becomes a universal chalice. As a universal chalice, the Eternal Grace will fill him; he thus regains his simple essence." Another key term, Têh, means the manifestation or unfolding of the Tao – its "Virtue" or "Grace", its shining-forth, perhaps equivalent to Wisdom or Sophia in the biblical tradition, or (in the Orthodox tradition) the Uncreated Energies.

The mood of Abandonment is similar to that of the Chinese classic. Like Lao Tzu, the author asks us to "gaze at the principle, the source and the origin of all things." Then the true nature of the world will reveal itself to the pure heart, as a manifestation of God's will, and everything that happens becomes a word addressed to us. "You speak to us individually through what happens to us moment by moment." We lack nothing – no guidance or consolation, since God is always as close as a kiss, and everything is designed to lead us to him, no matter how strange or unpleasant. "For what God creates at each moment is a divine thought which is expressed by a thing, and so all these things are so many names and words through which he makes known his wishes."

Tao – Logos, the One, God
Têh – Virtue, Mother, Wisdom
Tî – Perfect or Universal Man, Adam
Yang and Yin – Form and Matter, comprised in Tao
Heaven and Earth – Yang and Yin
Wu and Wei – Action and Non-action, comprised in Têh
Primal Triad – Yang, Yin, and Tî

Compare more than a hundred translations of the Tao Te Ching here.
For a list of my books go here.


  1. It's delightful to me that you can see and honor the radiance of being as it shines out from within other faiths, and from the pre-Christian world of proto-evangelium. I hope readers will see the striking difference between your solidly Catholic approach, and a merely wimpy syncretism. Those who do will lead in the kind of dialogue that ought to characterize the New Evangelization. Bravo to you for The Radiance of Being, and personal thanks to you for the radiance of your being!

  2. Thanks, Charlotte, for your encouragement, and for your own important work.

  3. Reading this made me pull down my copy of Zen Catholicism by Dom Aelred Graham from my bookshelf. In it he says: " It is possible that the Zen insight and style of life will eventually find their natural place in a Catholic context. A Zen saying is that 'Tao may be transmitted only to him who already has it.' The student may discover that Catholics, potentially at least, not only have the 'Tao', but that Catholicism offers a more fruitful field for its cultivation in the western world than can be found elsewhere."