Christ the Eternal Tao

A story from China. When Greek Orthodox missionaries arrived in China, they met philosophers who studied the writings of a highly regarded teacher name Lao Tzu. Lao Tzu lived six centuries before Christ. He taught the Tao, which in English means “The Way.” In a short time The missionaries realized that there were remarkable similarities between the Tao and the Logos of Greek philosophy. Here is what Lao Tzu wrote:

There exists a Being undifferentiated and complete,
Born before heaven and earth,
Tranquil, Boundless,
Abiding alone and changing not,
Encircling everything without exhaustion,
Fathomless, it seems to be the Source of all things,
I do not know its name,
But I characterize it as the Tao.
Arbitrarily forcing a name upon it,
I call it Great . . .

This longing for “the Source of all things,” whose name Lao Tzu did not know, was what Lao Tzu called the Tao, or The Way. The Greek missionaries marveled at the similar of Tao to the Logos of Greek philosophy, and decided to translate John 1:1 into Chinese like this:

“In the beginning was the Tao, and the Tao was with God, and the Tao was God. He was in the beginning with God, and without Him was not anything made that was made. And the Tao was made flesh and dwelt among us . . .”

How does the reader feel about this daring Chinese translation of John 1:1? What happened next is significant: Chinese people became Christians.

Drawing of St. Mitrofan Chang of Beijing, the first Chinese Orthodox priest

Bishop Symeon Du of the Orthodox Christian Church in Shanghai

In my opinion, Tao is a true and wonderful rendering of the Greek word Logos. John the gospel writer would probably approve of Tao. John was not Chinese, neither was he Greek, but John knew that the Greeks had the same longing as all God’s lost children; they wanted to discover the way back to Someone and Something that was good and true. The Logos and the Tao have this is common: it is a longing for Who is there, behind everything. It is a longing for personal goodness and truth. John decided to write that Jesus Christ was the Logos, and that was pretty radical. It is the missionary task to carefully study language and culture until a great discovery is made: a ready term that can help native speakers realize that the Person they are looking for is Jesus Christ. The Chinese concept similar to Logos is Tao. “And the Tao became flesh and dwelt among us.” In Christ the Eternal Tao, Hieromonk Damascene writes:

Avoiding the common pitfalls of religious syncretism, Christ the Eternal Tao shows Lao Tzu’s Tao as a foreshadowing of what would be revealed by Christ, and Lao Tzu himself as a Far-Eastern prophet of the Incarnate God.[1]

It is so interesting that C. S. Lewis, in his book The Abolition of Man, held the opinion that the Tao is a fair representation of the Logos. Lewis writes:

The Chinese speak of a great thing (the greatest thing) called the Tao. It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road. This conception in all its forms—Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall refer to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao.’”[2]

Lewis adopts the Chinese term Tao to encompass what he considers to be the broadly accepted, traditional moralities of both Eastern and Western cultures. He argues that this Tao, or Way, is the basis for all objective principles and, therefore, of all virtues. In short, the Tao refers to the belief “that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.” Throughout The Abolition of Man, Lewis argues that modern abandonment of the Tao endangers Western society by producing “Men Without Chests.”[3]

In Christ the Eternal Tao, Hieromonk Damascene writes,

We will seek to become like Lao Tzu’s image of the infant that has not yet smiled, who has not yet learned to react to words and ideas, who knows without knowing how it knows. And then, from the point of Lao Tzu’s simplicity, innocence, and direct intuition, we will receive the message of Christ from a new source: not from the modern West—which has distorted it into thousands of conflicting sects and philosophies—but from the ancient Christian East, which has transmitted to modern times the essence of Christ’s teaching in a way that resonates with the teaching of Lao Tzu.[4]

[1] Damascene, Christ the Eternal Tao, 1st ed. (Platina, Calif.: Valaam Books, 1999). Back cover

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (London,: Oxford university press, H. Milford, 1943).

[3] Ibid. The title of the first chapter of The Abolition of Man is “Men without Chests.”

[4] Damascene, Christ the Eternal Tao. 25