Friday, 17 February 2012

Sweeping the steps

 Li Erh grew up in China around six hundred years before Jesus was born in Palestine.  He worked for the King of Zhou in Louyang as the keeper of the imperial archives, and spent a lifetime immersing himself in study of the ancient and sacred texts, becoming both knowledgeable and wise (two different things occasionally confused).   The great Chinese philosopher Confucius travelled across China to meet him when Li Erh was an old man, and they entered a conversation that went on for several months and considerably influenced some aspects of Confucian thinking.

By the time he got to eighty years of age, Li Erh found the ways of the world failed to grip.  He saw that most people had no interest in forging lives of simple goodness, and the resulting coarseness and shallowness left him cold.  There came a point where he’d had enough, and made the decision to find his way clear, make his home in the quietness and loneliness of the desert, the wilderness, for his remaining years on Earth.  He set off for Tibet.

When he reached the border of Ch’in, one of the guards begged that before he left them he write down and leave behind the legacy of his wisdom; for it was apparent to the guard that they would never see him again.   Accordingly, Li Erh took three days sabbatical from the pilgrimage that would return his soul to the wild and set it free, in which he wrote down his perspective on life.  He wrote on bamboo scrolls, which he gave to the guard; then he continued on his journey, and that was the last meeting with Li Erh recorded in Chinese history.

But they did keep his book.  Treasured it, copied it; in due course translated it into many, many languages.  Its calm wisdom, quiet like deep pools, has steadied and directed souls all this long time.

Li Erh earned many titles and descriptions that grew into titles, but he is best remembered by China’s favourite name for him – in English, The Old Master; in Chinese, Lao Tsu.

His short book, conceived over a lifetime’s thought and study, written down in the span of three days, took its title from the opening words of the two sections into which it falls; together they form a brilliantly terse summary, irreducible minimum description, of its subject matter and contents.  Chapter One, opening the first part of the work, starts with the word Tao (meaning street/path/road/way).  Chapter 38, opening part two, begins with the word Te (meaning innate or natural goodness – virtue).  The people of China recognised this short and precious text as a wisdom classic; so they added to this succinct enscription the word Ching – meaning classic.

Thus came about Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching, meaning loosely “Classic Text of the Way of Goodness”.

Why I am telling you all this is because this book has been very important in the development of my own thinking and understanding, and I want to write something here making reference to its thought (but I’ll do that tomorrow or this post would become far too long). 

I wanted you to be clear about what the Tao Te Ching is, because many of my readers are Christian, and some Christians are suspicious of the wisdom of the Tao Te Ching, fearing that its philosophy may be a rival to the Christian creeds, and fearing that reference to the Tao Te Ching may imply disloyalty to the sacred text of the Bible.

In England we have a radio show called Desert Island discs, where people in the public eye come as guest on the show to share which favourite pieces of music they would take with them to their desert island, should they ever be thus exiled.  They are also allowed to choose one item or object to take with them (Enoch Powell, for some reason I remember, said he would take a fish kettle – very practical!) and in addition to the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare, one book of their choice.

In such circumstances, I would take the Tao Te Ching.

But I want you to grasp, it’s not like the Koran or the Book of Mormon; it’s not a rival Bible.

When I was training for the ordained ministry, we were assessed on our reading (list, I mean, not reading aloud), our preaching, and some other aspects of our “performance” I’ve now forgotten, marked on a simple ABC system.  I got straight As for all of it except preaching.  My preaching was marked down to a B because of one particular trial sermon I had preached.   In it, I made reference to a recent (then – back in the 1990s) article published by the Evangelical Alliance, in which they demonstrated the lordship of Jesus by announcing that the Buddha is dead, the prophet Mohammed is dead, but Jesus is alive!

I got into trouble for saying in the sermon that this pronouncement showed merely an ignorance about Buddhism and Islam.  It wasn’t a resurrection contest.  So far as I know Jesus is the only one supposed to be the Messiah, supposed to be the Son of David, supposed to rise from the dead.  No-one else has ever claimed to be Lord of Creation, the Way the Truth and the Life.  There are no other candidates for the post of Cosmic Logos of God.   Suspicion and denigration of the faith path of others, mocking their leaders, shows merely a blinkered, small-minded view of life that betrays embarrassing lack of intellectual sophistication.

So I got a B for my sermon for being rude about the Evangelical Alliance.

This then clears the path for what I want to write tomorrow – about the Many, the Few and the One.


(You do know about Backson?)


365 366 Day 48 (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, see here

Oh look.  Another small jug.  What can I say?


DaisyAnon said...

I love the Tao. It would be one of my desert island books too. I can't find anything in it opposed to Christianity.

There is even a hint of a Trinitarian idea in one of the chapters.

I like Timothy Freke's translation.

Love the jugs. I have a collection of my own. There is something about a cute jug, especially from a charity shop which is irresistable.

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) Waving! x

Heidi said...

I've read that C.S. Lewis used the Tao as a concept for God's will or natural order, and while I like the idea of it, I am also somewhat uneasy about it, as the Christian religious system and world view is different from the Taoist and the mentioned claim might be bordering on disrespectful to practicing Taoist's understanding of themselves, their own religious system and the world. There's no need for God in the Taoist view of the world. Theres a divine sphere, but no God, and Jesus could never be more than an enlightened or teacher within the Taoist world view - I think that's important. However, I believe it's possible to be right for the wrong reasons, and I definitely believe it's possible to learn from other religions.

Pen Wilcock said...

Julie in Duluth, still kept out of the Comments box by Blogger's high fences and gun turrets, says this (am a bit worried about the final para):

"I am probably one of those Christians who are wary of the Tao Te Ching, not because I felt it was a rival Bible, but because the people I've known who highly value it (a couple of them, from reading -- not you) are most decidedly not Christians and seem a little woo-woo to me. Do you have that phrase in England? Woo-woo? It's said with a slight ululation to imitate the Twilight Zone theme song from the 50s and 60s and is meant to mean "weird; far out there."

We are warned again and again in Scripture about false teachings and false prophets and to be on alert for them. I think this is where some of our/my wariness comes from.

That being said, I learned a lot from what you wrote today, and look forward to your next post on this! As I get older, I do realize that the Bible isn't the only book with wisdom - there are many places where wisdom is written. But I do believe the Bible is the only book with the way of salvation in it, and is more than a book of wisdom and history to be admired and followed. For me, it literally brings life, when I go to it half-dead and spiritually starving, which is often. It really does change my mind, which is so black sometimes I truly despair.

God bless your weekend, dear Ember. (I'm so glad you're donating your little cream pitchers - it will make room for the sizable box I've wrapped of several of my own pitchers, and will send to you next week, helping you start a new collection.) ;D"

Pen Wilcock said...

Thanks for your comments, friends! :0)

Anonymous said...

I agree with everything that Julie said (apart from the bit about sending you jugs to replace the ones you got rid of!) however I also think that as Christians we're often too quick to jump up and down and throw a hissy fit without actually looking at what we are having a hissy fit about. I think there's some stuff that could be labelled as dodgy that we could actually learn from and that can help us view the world a little differently and that can therefore help our walk with God. It's one of those things that everyone needs to judge/learn for themselves.

Anonymous said... item to take to a desert island would be Ray Mears as I would therefore not need to worry about building a shelter or working out what food wasn't poisonous...he'd know it all :-D

maria said...

Dear Friend, I believe that Our Lord uses everything to teach us. I believe that wisdom comes from Him and through Him, but I also believe that belittle-ling others' views in any format, is indeed, small mindedness.

I have never read the Tao, so I don't feel equipped to make an intelligent opinion.

But reading your post, I get the feeling that this little book has helped you in your life.

Looking forward to your next post...

Peace be with you my friend,

Anna said...

We have a lovely book called, "Christ the Eternal Tao" written by an Orthodox monk. You would enjoy it, I think.

Pen Wilcock said...

Ooh - thanks, Anna! I'll look out for that! A favourite of mine, one of the few that has earned a long-term place on my small bookshelves, is The Jesus Sutras by Martin Palmer; about the writings of 7th century Chinese Taoists converted to Christianity, how they saw Christianity and what they made of the Christian Scriptures. They called it "the Light religion" :0)
I see Thomas Moore has written a similar book which I've not read, but Martin Palmer's is here (sorry, the link doesn't come live, one has to copy and paste):