Even the casual reader of the Tao Te Ching quickly notices its love of paradoxical formulations. But they have a serious purpose; indeed, Lao Tzu could not say quite what he wants to say without them. But a little stage-setting is required in order to understand what is going on.
The central concept of the Tao Te Ching is, of course, that of the Tao. Literally, this means the “Way,” and the notion of the Way as a moral path is central to ethics and political philosophy in the Chinese tradition. But the Tao Te Ching raises the Tao to the level of a metaphysical principle as well. The idea is that following the Tao conceived of as the moral path of the sage and the wise statesman has to do with mirroring the Tao conceived of as the metaphysical first principle or source of all other reality. (The Tao Te Ching, like Plato’s Republic, is no less concerned with metaphysics than it is with ethics and political philosophy – and indeed, like Plato’s classic, takes its moral and political conclusions to follow from its metaphysics. But in the present post I’ll be focusing only on the metaphysics.)
The Tao is “the origin of Heaven and Earth” and “the mother of all things” (I,1), and “all things depend on it for life” (I, 34). It is “eternal” (I, 32) and possesses a “simplicity” (I, 32 and 37) that is prior to the “differentiation” we find in the world around us (I,32). Lao Tzu writes:
Tao produced the One. The One produced the two. The two produced the three. And the three produced the ten thousand things. The ten thousand things carry the yin and embrace the yang, and through the blending of the material force (ch’i) they achieve harmony. (II, 42)
In another passage, the Tao seems to be identified with “the One”; and of Heaven, Earth, gods, lords, princes, and creatures, it is said that “it is the One that makes these what they are” (II, 39, As if to summarize these themes, the Tao Te Ching says:).
There was something undifferentiated and yet complete, which existed before heaven and earth. Soundless and formless, it depends on nothing and does not change. It operates everywhere and is free from danger. It may be considered the mother of the universe. I do not know its name; I call it Tao. If forced to give it a name, I shall call it Great. (I, 25, Wing-Tsit Chan translation)
So far this sounds like a kind of theism, albeit the Tao is commonly understood to be impersonal rather than a literal heavenly mother or father. In particular, it is reminiscent of the Neo-Platonic theism that takes all differentiated and composite things to derive from an absolutely simple first cause, by way of emanation. And since what we have here is a philosophical doctrine (even if it is not one for which detailed and rigorous explicit arguments are given) rather than a purported revelation, it amounts to a kind of natural theology.
However, we have not yet addressed the most striking aspect of this natural theology. It is evident from the start, in the famous, haunting first lines of the Tao Te Ching: “The Tao that can be told of is not the eternal Tao; the name that can be named is not the eternal name” (I, 1). Hence, as the passage goes on to say, the Tao is “nameless” as well as “named.”
There is paradox here, but no contradiction. What Lao Tzu is telling us is that while of course the Tao can be named or spoken of in one sense – that’s the point of saying what we’ve so far heard him say, after all – what we are speaking about is something that ultimately cannot adequately be captured in language, because it is so radically unlike the temporary, changing, differentiated, dependent things of our experience. In that sense it is nameless. The best we can do is to suggest the ways in which it is not like the things of our experience – it is not temporary, not changing, not differentiated, not dependent, and so on.
In other words, the Tao Te Ching is in part an exercise in what has come to be referred to in the West as negative theology or apophatic theology. The theme runs throughout the book. We are told that the Tao is “empty” (I, 4) and “has no name” (I, 32). It is the “Invisible,” the “Inaudible,” the “Elusive,” and “infinite and boundless, it cannot be given any name” (I, 14). Though its “essence is very real,” it is “deep and obscure” (I, 21). In the world of our experience, we find beauty and ugliness, good and evil, being and non-being, difficult and easy, long and short, high and low, front and back, and so on (I, 2); but, the implication seems to be, the Tao transcends all of these, and thus “the sage… spreads doctrines without words.”
This, I submit, explains the meaning of the remark cited above to the effect that “being comes from non-being.” The Tao is not like any of the finite things of our experience – it is not merely one further item of furniture in the universe, not a being alongside all these other beings. In that sense it is a kind of “non-being,” but this is not meant to imply that there is no such thing as the Tao. After all, here Lao Tzu is affirming its existence and telling us much about it.
In an especially striking remark, he tells us that the Tao “seems to have existed before the Lord” (I, 4). (Lau translates this as: “It images the forefather of God.”) This is reminiscent of Paul Tillich’s notion of the “the God above God” – the idea that the God of classical theism transcends the excessively anthropomorphic conceptions of deity one finds not only among uneducated believers, but even among some theologians and philosophers.
What exactly is the relationship between the Tao and the world? What has been said so far might indicate that they are utterly distinct, as God and the world are taken to be in mainstream Western theism. However, we are also told that the Tao “is to the world as the River and the Sea are to rivulets and streams” (I, 32, Lau translation). This seems to imply a continuity between the Tao and the world, as rivers and seas are continuous with rivulets and streams. Indeed, as Frederick Copleston notes in his book Religion and the One: Philosophies East and West, the Tao Te Ching says that the Tao “moves” by “turning back” (II, 40). Copleston says that all of this “suggests that the One is the universe, which pursues a cyclic course, producing the Many in a process of self-transformation, absorbing them into itself, and then reproducing them once more” (p. 46).
How does this square with the idea that the Tao is changeless, given that the world is changing? Copleston proposes that we interpret the Tao Te Ching through the lens of the distinction drawn in later Chinese philosophy between substance and function. The substance of the Tao, on this interpretation, is the Tao considered in itself, which is one, timeless, and unchanging. The function of the Tao is the Tao considered in terms of its manifestation in the world of our experience, which is many, temporal, and changing.
This doesn’t quite imply pantheism, since there isn’t a complete collapse here of the distinction between Tao and world. But the distinction is arguably sufficiently attenuated that we have a kind of panentheism. I would propose that “apophatic panentheism” might be an apt label for Lao Tzu’s brand of natural theology.