In the Beginning Was the Tao…

Ken Leong, the author of The Zen Teachings of Jesus, posted this on Facebook the other day:

I was having a conversation with a group of American Christians. I told them that in the Chinese version of John’s Gospel, the WORD was translated into “Tao.” They asked me for the definition of the Tao. I replied that the Tao cannot be defined and they laughed. Apparently they don’t understand Christian theology very well. They don’t know that God cannot be defined either. It is beyond human intellect. The rational mind simply fails to grasp that such things exist. This is a blind spot in modern culture.

Instead of “You had me at hello,” for this post I’ll say “You had me at Tao.”

I’m so sorry that Ken had this experience of people laughing — but that’s evidence of our cultural “blind spot” he refers to. It’s the same blind spot that is uncomfortable with silence, that thinks religion is all about holding the correct propositions about God (and little or nothing else), and that regards mysticism — especially apophatic mysticism — and contemplation with suspicion.

It’s the same blind spot that my friend Kevin Johnson writes about in a blog post called Expanding Our Minds: Recovering Contemplation in Pursuit of Wisdom.

Christians, of a certain mindset, simply refuse to acknowledge that God is profound, unspeakable mystery. In doing so, they play into the hands of militant atheists, who — finding the notion of God irrational rather than trans-rational — argue loudly that belief in any type of God is therefore a sign of feeble-mindedness.

So hurray for Chinese, and for “In the Beginning was the Tao.” And it gets bonus points for its delicious invitation  into Christian-Taoist interreligious dialogue.

Incidentally, there’s a book called Christ the Eternal Tao by an Orthodox writer, Hieromonk Damascene. He presents Lao Tzu (author of the Tao te Ching) as a kind of precursor to Christ. I haven’t read it, so I don’t know much about it, but it seems to explore this same terrain.

If we can’t define it, can we at least explore what it means to call the Logos the Tao? I couldn’t resist googling the word, and the Oxford Dictionary’s entry for Tao came back at me. But rather than seeing this as a definition, let’s regard it as an invitation — to step deeper into the mystery.

Here’s what has to say…

(in Chinese philosophy) the absolute principle underlying the universe, combining within itself the principles of yin and yang and signifying the way, or code of behaviour, that is in harmony with the natural order. The interpretation of Tao in the Tao-te-Ching developed into the philosophical religion of Taoism.

So we see here a number of points where Christ can be discerned. An “absolute principle underlying the universe” calls to mind Colossians 1:15-17:

15 He is the image of the invisible God,
    the firstborn of all creation.
16 For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth,
    the visible and the invisible,
    whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers;
    all things were created through him and for him.
17 He is before all things,
    and in him all things hold together.

The principles of yin and yang? In Christ there is no male and female — Galatians 3:28 — which could just as easily mean that Christ encompasses all that is good in both male and female.

Signifying the way, the code of behavior, in harmony with nature? “I am the way, the truth, and the life” proclaims Jesus in John 14:6.

But back to Ken’s main point, and here we have to turn to the opening words of the Tao te Ching:

The Tao that can be defined is not the real Tao.
The name that can be named is not the real Name.1Translated by George Cronk, in Readings in Philosophy: Eastern and Western Sources.

Try this on for size:

The word that can be defined is not the real Word.
The logos that can be defined is not the true Logos.

Most Christians, as Ken Leong found out, will laugh at this. But anyone who has spent some time with the mystics will nod in recognition.

From Evagrius, to Pseudo-Dionysius, to Richard of St. Victor, to The Cloud of Unknowing, to St. John of the Cross, all the way down to Bruno Barnhart and Ramon Panikkar in our time: generation after generation, the mystics have recognized that God ushers us into the abyss, the brink of mystery, the place where language simply stops working and only silence can teach us who God truly is.

When we enter the silence, in the wordless adoration of contemplative prayer, we may (by grace) catch a glimpse of this God-who-cannot-be-defined. We may, by grace, encounter the Word who cannot be spoken.

And if nothing else, we just might come to grips with the fact that the blind spot is there, and as soon as we start thinking and talking again, it’s back online.

Which is why we need the grace of contemplation in our lives, each and every day.

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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.


  1. I enjoyed this article….I recently read (slowly, I have to admit…lol) a translation of the Tao and I did see a lot of “Christian” ideas in it! Inter spirituality, Carl, opens up some wonderful vistas!

  2. I think we need to be cautious here because we are dealing with two totally different philosophical/religious systems here. There is a tendency to input meanings or value from one system into the other and to redact our understanding to fit one system into the other.

    1. I agree with you, Alex. Care and caution serve us well whenever we attempt to be in conversation with those whose cultures and languages are so different from our own. It’s dangerous to engage in interfaith dialogue sloppily or mindlessly. And yet I think it’s even more dangerous not to engage in the conversation at all.

  3. “When a foolish man hears of the Tao,
    He laughs out loud.
    If he didn’t laugh,
    It wouldn’t be the Tao.”
    – Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
    (Stephen Mitchell trans.)

    1. Thanks for this quote, Phil. (I love the Stephen Mitchell translation very much–both for its poetic touch and its lucidity).

  4. As an Interfaith Minister and mystic, I applaud your openness to the similarities between many faiths. I love the Tao Te Ching – it is one of the most profound books ever written, IMO. Yes, there are numerous similarities to Christian mysticism – but perhaps not so much to Christian evangelicalism. (It is hard to pour a new idea into a vessel that is already full.) In a church class, while explaining the similarity of Christ to Tao, I used John 14:6, “I am the Tao, the truth, and the light. No one can come to the Father except through the Tao.” to expand their thinking. But I love your connection to Logos, and I agree with you that it is past time for a broader Christian understanding of God. I’m looking forward to reading more of your work. Blessings!

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