I’ve been reading a book about Taoism that has helped more clearly understand Taoist concepts and their relation to Christian concepts. I’ve written about the concept of Wu Wei before, and I think I’m still somewhat enamored of the idea, but perhaps not as much. Laozi puts forth the idea that being is better than doing. This idea, as Holmes Welch describes it in the book I’m reading (Taoism: The Parting of the Way), is the concept that attitude is better than action. Laozi’s argument, in its essence, is that when we act we provoke reaction, and the reaction will often be in opposition to the action that we take. Laozi’s answer to the evils of his day was to take no action to stop them, oppose them, or even address them, but to simply ‘be’ good. His argument was that in being good one’s nature would naturally stand in opposition to evil without actively opposing that evil, which would create a strong reaction from said evil. Laozi argued that no one can fight with the sage simply because the sage refuses to fight. Mahatma Ghandi’s life was an excellent example of this principle in action, as was Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement.
This same concept can be seen in portions of the scripture (i.e. if a man strikes one cheek, give him the other), but Laozi takes the concept further than scripture allows us to do. Laozi argues that Being and Not Doing is better than Doing and Not Being (i.e. true attitude is better than hypocritical action), but he also argues that Being and Not Doing is better than Being and Doing (because action causes reaction). However, scripture commands both Being and Doing. 1st John is an excellent example of this. John commands us throughout this book to an attitude of love (agape). He juxtaposes love with two possible opposites though: first he tells us that a man who hates his brother does not love God. Here Love (i.e. a deep emotive concern for the well-being of another, even at the expense of one’s own) is juxtaposed with Hate (i.e. a deep emotive concern for the harm of another, even at the expense of one’s own well-being).
It is important not to confuse this Love/Hate juxtaposition with the Love/Hate juxtaposition used in Paul’s legal terminology. Paul tells us that God ‘loved Jacob, but hated Esau’. Does this mean that God had a ‘deep emotive concern for the harm of Esau’? Of course not. This is a legal use of the terms ‘love’ and ‘hate’ that reflects a covenantal choice that holds no emotive value. God did not wish Esau harm, but he did choose Jacob through whom to continue the spiritual line of Abraham, a place for which Esau was rejected. This is important, but entirely different from the emotive love/hate juxtaposition that John creates in his letter.
However, John does not simply juxtapose love to hate. He also tells us that ‘he who does not love his brother does not know God’. Thus, love is also juxtaposed with apathy. Hence it is not enough to show love by not hating another, but we must also show love by showing a deep emotive concern for another’s well-being. This concept is necessarily active in nature. While the love/hate juxtaposition could potentially reflect a non-active attitudinal love, the love/apathy juxtaposition cannot. This is also reflected in James’ exhortation that ‘faith without works is dead’. Thus a very, very important difference between Laozi’s philosophy and Christian philosophy is the necessity of action. Scripture certainly argues that Being and Not Doing is better than Doing and Not Being. However, scripture absolutely argues against the concept that Being and Not Doing is better than Being and Doing.
The other area of major difference is that of ultimate goal or purpose. Laozi’s writing was ultimately concerned with the temporal (though not necessarily material) world. He sought an answer to the warfare that was rife in China during his lifetime (which was probably somewhere between 60 and 200 years, if he existed at all… I must confess that I cannot bring myself to argue that Adam lived 900 some years, Abraham 180 years, Moses 120, and yet completely reject the notion that Laozi may have lived for 200 years). Ultimately, Laozi’s argument is that through Being and Not Doing we can more effectively implement our will in the world than through Doing and Not Being, or through Being and Doing.
However, the ultimate goal or purpose of the Christian is not to implement our will in the world, but to glorify the Godhead (I’ve said this many times) in part by implementing his will in the world (though this is not our only means of glorifying him). Thus, Laozi’s philosophy and Christian philosophy again find themselves at odds simply because of the source of the will that they seek to enact. There are many good things in Laozi’s philosophy, and his concept of Being as primary is one that I think many American Christians need to embrace. However, ultimately, the differences, as well as the similarities, must be addressed, and it is never enough to only examine one or the other.