There is an article in the most recent Atlantic Monthly on the Catholic Church in China. The piece centers on Bishop Jin Liuxian of Shanghai and the trials and tribulations he experienced in his long struggle to preserve the liturgy and faith under harsh repression. For all of the respect he is due, however, there was one passage that raised some questions in my mind:
Jin had always seen similarities between Catholicism and Chinese culture. Like many Chinese Christians, he was attracted to the Gospel of John and its mystical concept of Logos—or “the Word,” as embodied in Christ. “The Logos is like Chinese philosophy,” he says, referring to the Tao, a concept sometimes translated as “the Way.” Both the Tao and Logos, he explains, suggest a rational order in the universe, though in the case of Catholicism, that order is revealed physically in the figure of Christ.
The concept of "Tao" is famously difficult to define. The opening line of the Tao Te Ching tells us that the "Tao" that can be put into words is not the genuine Tao. That is, Tao is something beyond our human capacities to understand and articulate. Way is vast. Chuang Tzu also mentions its elusiveness:
Tao has its own nature and its own reliability: it does nothing and has no form. It can be passed on, but never received and held. You can master it, but your can't see it. Its own source, its own root - it was there before heaven and earth, firm and constant from ancient times. It makes gods and demons sacred, gives birth to heaven and earth. It's above the absolute pole, but is not high. It's below the six directions, but is not deep. It predates the birth of heaven and earth, but is not ancient. It precedes high antiquity, but is not old. (87)
We can see a bit of a parallel here between Tao and "Logos". Both precede creation: in the beginning there was the word; Tao is its own source. And both invest heaven and earth with meaning - Tao makes gods and demons sacred; and God's word, for John, provides ontological security.
But, and with all due respect to the Bishop, there are fundamental differences between Tao and Logos. Tao cannot be articulated; Logos obviously can. Indeed, Logos is precisely the will of God made manifest in such a manner that humans can - or, at least should - understand. Tao has no form. It can be "passed on" - especially through our daily engagement with immediate circumstances, the way we "dwell in the ordinary" - but it cannot be received or held. In other words (however imperfect words may be for expressing Tao), in all of its indistinctness, Tao cannot be reduced to a consistent set of ideas or precepts that apply universally to everyone everywhere. Obviously, the whole notion of a "catholic" church, which claims to be the one true church, rests on a belief in the universality of Logos. Tao just doesn't work that way.
So, the "rationality" of Tao - the complex unity of all things unfolding according to their unique individual natures simultaneously now - is not really a rationality of Logos, which rests more in the mental processes of human minds. As Joseph Needham describes it, as quoted in Mote (p. 16), the cosmology of Tao is "an ordered harmony of wills without an ordainer." There is, then, no Taoist need for a personification of God's order in Christ.
Bishop Jin, like some many of us who think about Tao, found there something he was looking for. There are ways in which Tao resonates with various Christian ideas. But it must be said, just because philosophic Taoism can be made, by human minds, consistent with Christianity does not mean that Taoism is inherently Christian. It is not. It has been adapted to Buddhism and Judaism and other belief systems but is always something more than any of those orientations. And that is OK because Way is vast....