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Thinking Out Loud

The Way, the Truth and the Life

by Michael Jinkins | Apr 01, 2016

Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook." E-mail us!

the way the truth and the lifeAs dusk gathered and our neighborhood bat swooped and dived skimming water from the surface of the pool, a group of about twenty students and I drifted into a time of silence allowing the stillness of the evening and the chirping of cicadas to take our thoughts away. We sat quietly. Some sat and thought. Some sat and prayed. Some sat and sipped their drinks. And some reflected on the words I had just read from one of my all-time favorite sources of spiritual wisdom.

For many years, at the seminary in which I served before coming to Louisville, I met weekly with a group of students and staff  for prayer and reflection on classic texts of Christian spirituality. Over the years, we read brilliant texts both historical (by Lady Julian of NorwichBlaise Pascal and Thomas á Kempis) and modern (Karen ArmstrongC.S. Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer). We covenanted to pray the Psalms daily using the arrangement provided by the Episcopal Church's Book of Common Prayer. Some of us prayed morning and evening according to the Daily Office of the Anglican tradition; others made use of the Daily Prayer resources of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

One year, some students from our group decided to engage in an exercise that turned out to be lots of fun. The students asked various members of our faculty if they would share with the students their own personal spiritual practices. In many cases the students were invited to the homes of the professors to engage in these practices with them. The exercise was open to anyone in the seminary community who wanted to participate.

Toward the end of the year, the group asked me to share my personal spiritual practices with them. Since they already knew the core of my practice to be the Episcopal Daily Office and the daily praying of the Psalms, I thought I would share with them other aspects of my devotional life. This turned out to be a surprise to some because, in addition to reflection on classical Christian sources, I have for the past thirty years regularly drawn on sources of spiritual wisdom from other traditions, such as Abraham Heschel's The Sabbath, Epictetus's DiscoursesThe Epic of Gilgamesh and the Tao Te Ching.

As I explained to the students, this part of my spiritual discipline consisted of sitting in our back garden, usually as the evening gathered over the pool and often drinking a nice bourbon or scotch and enjoying a good cigar. Often I would read quietly and then reflect on a passage from the reading. Sometimes, after I finished this lectio process, I would listen to music.

Naturally, the students wanted to engage in my spiritual practice with me. The group that gathered at our home, for some mysterious reason, swelled to become the largest such spiritual gathering of the year. (Call me suspicious, but I do suspect that the popularity of this gathering had as much to do with what we imbibed as it did with what I was actually going to read to them.) They joined me one warm spring evening for cigars, a whiskey (or another suitable beverage of their choosing), readings from the Tao Te Ching and quiet reflection, followed by the music of Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Willie Nelson and Bonnie Raitt, and, of course, lively conversation that lasted into the very wee hours.

The Spell of the Tao
I cannot now recall when I first came under the spell of the Tao Te Ching (also sometimes transliterated from the Chinese as the Daode jing). From my first encounter with the Tao Te Ching, I was struck by the apparent simplicity and the real paradoxes of this ancient text, the roots of which date well before the Common Era.* The verses are often lyrical, often contrarian, sometimes veering toward the anarchic. They are thoroughly resonant with the natural world and virtually redefine the notion of "counter-cultural."
Some of our most familiar sayings have their origin in the Tao Te Ching, like: "Those who talk don't know, and those who know don't say."

At the heart of the Tao Te Ching resides a respect for the mystery that lies beyond and beneath and within all things: "There is a Tao that can be spoken, but it is not the eternal Tao."

The word "Tao" is very hard to render into English; it is frequently translated as "the Way," though it means much, much more.

Whenever I turn to this text, I find myself drawn ever more deeply into a sense of awe and respect for the natural world and for the eternal wisdom and creative power that brought this world into existence and sustains it by unseen and unknowable forces. The text is profoundly humbling, reminding us that it is hubris and insecurity rather than a zeal for righteousness that drives so many of our attempts to "improve" other people.

I have often recommended the Tao Te Ching to others in leadership, and they have sometimes returned to me mystified that I encouraged them to read the text. From the perspective of the Tao Te Ching, the greatest leader is the one who, like the great sea, is content to lie below and serve the surrounding rivers and plains.

"Why is the sea king of a hundred streams?
Because it lies below them.

Therefore it is the king of a hundred streams.
"If the sage would guide the people, he must serve with humility.
If he would lead them, he must follow behind. ...

"Because he does not compete,
He does not meet competition."
(Chapter 64)**

The leader is not inactive (a common misunderstanding of the Taoist concept of "wu-wei"), but the leader (who should also be a sage) seeks not to attract attention to his or her own efforts, does not insist on having his or her own way, and does not need to strive to prove his or her own merit. The sage/leader of the Tao tradition knows that he or she is not indispensable.

The greatest service of the leader is to BE in a particular way, in harmony with the eternal Tao, in harmony with the true nature of reality, glorying in silence, listening with care, speaking mindfully when speaking is appropriate and responding always in reflection rather than reacting in anxiety. As Cristóbal Serrán-Pagán y Fuentes observes in a recent essay:

"Particularly in Western culture inaction is a term that denotes a pejorative character in nature of idleness or abstention from involvement of any sort. Yet in ancient Taoism the philosophy of wu-wei is a type of action so well in accordance with the flow of things that its author leaves no trace of himself or herself in the universe." ***

Recently I was thinking about the similarity between the wisdom of the Tao and the spirituality of some of the First Peoples of the Americas. This similarity is exemplified by Willa Cather in her novel, Death Comes to the Archbishop, when she contrasts the way of the Navajo traveling companion (Eusabio) of the French missionary bishop (Father Latour) of New Mexico and the way of the Europeans lately come to that region. Cather writes:

"Traveling with Eusabio was like traveling with the landscape made human. He accepted chance and weather as the country did, with a sort of grave enjoyment. ... When they left the rock or tree or sand dune that had sheltered them for the night, the Navajo was careful to obliterate every trace of their temporary occupation. He buried the embers of the fire and the remnants of food, unpiled any stones he had piled together, filled up the holes he had scooped in the sand. ... Father Latour judged that, just as it was the white man's way to assert himself in any landscape, to change it, make it over a little (at least to leave some mark of memorial of his sojourn), it was the Indian's way to pass through the country without disturbing anything; to pass and leave no trace, like fish through the water, or birds through the air." ****

One could not find a better illustration of the spirit of wu-wei in any collection of tales of the Tao. The Tao Te Ching's conception of wu-wei conveys as much an exhortation to reverence as a warning against arrogance, as we see in the following passage:

"Do you think you can take over the universe and improve it?
I do not believe it can be done.

"The universe is sacred.
You cannot improve it.
If you try to change it, you will ruin it.
If you try to hold it, you will lose it."
(Chapter 29)**

My favorite translation of the Tao Te Ching sits here beside me now as I write these words. It is dog-eared, margin-marked, cross-indexed, and thoroughly loved to tatters. It tempts me now to take you on an excursion into its chapters of ancient wisdom. But I simply wouldn't be able to stop myself if I got started; I'd probably end up reprinting the entire Tao Te Ching in this blog. Instead, I'll close by responding to a query I often get from folks who are confused or concerned that a Christian (and Christian theologian, at that) is nourished to such a large extent as I am by spiritual traditions beyond the Christian family, especially, in my case, by Judaism, Stoicism, Buddhism and Taoism. I'll respond with a story.

Several years ago, Stephen Prothero and I were speakers for a daylong educational event sponsored by a Presbyterian group in greater Washington, D.C. I had never before met Steve, but I respected his work on religious literacy and interfaith studies. His brilliant book, God is Not One, had just recently come out.

Throughout the course of the day, in one of many side conversations with Steve, he discovered how much Taoism means to me. He observed, however, that I behave, at least professionally, in a manner more consistent with Confucianism than Taoism. We agreed that this made sense, given my Reformed and Presbyterian roots and outlook on the world. (Presbyterians are the Confucians of the Protestant Christian world!) I asked him if it was problematic that I loved Taoist thought but acted, at least in my workday, more like a Confucian. To the contrary, he said. In fact, in certain Asian cultures, he said, it was understood that when at work one behaves as a Confucian, but on the weekends and in the evenings one is Taoist.

What I took away from that conversation is an awareness that we can be well nourished and informed by a variety of spiritual traditions beyond our "home" tradition. Some approaches will speak to us more directly and appropriately in certain circumstances than others. I have found that it is quite possible to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and to find in the Tao a deep wisdom that also guides one's life.

However, we must, I believe, be respectful of the integrity of the various spiritual traditions that feed us. We must not water them down, but understand them constructively and even critically, as much as possible in their own terms, as we seek to live our lives. And we must be clear within ourselves where the boundaries of our Christian "home" faith are, what is non-negotiable, and who God has revealed Godself to be in Jesus of Nazareth.

We must do these things even while we continue to grow and learn and allow the living God to test the boundaries, to call into question even our "non-negotiables," and to act as (to borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis) "the eternal Iconoclast" who dismantles every idol we craft, even when that idol is made of our own most precious creeds.

Maturity in being human comes as much from discarding the extraneous as it does from acquiring new insights. Ultimately, that which ennobles us is our humility in the face of the holy. As the Tao Te Ching says: "When [humans] lack a sense of awe, there will be disaster." (Chapter 72)**
*One "manuscript" version of the Tao Te Ching, written on bamboo strips, dates to around 300 B.C. The origins of this book are cloaked in legend. It is traditionally attributed to a legendary sage called Lao Tzu or Laozi. The text itself is quite short, consisting of about five thousand Chinese characters. It is divided into eighty-one brief chapters, and consists of two parts, the Tao (or Dao) and the Te (De). A very helpful introduction to Taoism is provided by Alicia Kohn, "Taoist Traditions," in an excellent volume Merton and the Tao: Dialogues with John Wu and the Ancient Sages, edited by Cristóbal Serrán-Pagán y Fuentes (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2013), 1-29. Those familiar with Thomas Merton will know of his amazing book The Way of Chuang Tzu, the most recent edition of which includes a preface by the Dalai Lama (New York: New Directions, 1965/1997).
**Tao Te Ching, translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, with introduction and notes by Jacob Needleman (New York: Vintage, 1972), 68. This is my favorite edition of the Tao Te Ching.
***This essay, "The Mystical Teaching of Wu-Wei in the Daode Jing: A Comparative Study of East and West on Spiritual Detachment," appears in the volume on Merton and the Tao, edited by Serrán-Pagán y Fuentes, 30-44.
****Willa Cather, Death Comes to the Archbishop, (New York: Vintage classics edition, 1990), 232-233.

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