Beatitudes

Yesterday a friend more or less demanded that I offer some kind of Daoist reflection on the contents of the Beatitudes, based on Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth.

The scandal of the Cross is harder for many to bear than the thunder of Sinai had been for the Israelites. In fact, the Israelites were quite right when they said they would die if God should speak with them (Ex 20:19). Without a “dying,” without the demise of what is simply our own, there is no communion with God and no redemption. Our meditation on the Baptism has already demonstrated this for us—Baptism cannot be reduced to a mere ritual.

Obviously the crucifixion and the person of Christ give a focal point and an historical finality that is lacking in Daoism. But the psychological premise is by no means foreign: to emulate the Dao, we must empty ourselves of all our selfish interests and desires. As Laozi 49 states: “The Sage has no heart of his own; He uses the heart of the people as his heart.”

“Dying” underlies the principle of inversion at the heart of the Beatitudes.

The Beatitudes, spoken with the community of Jesus’ disciples in view, are paradoxes—the standards of the world are turned upside down as soon as things are seen in the right perspective, which is to say, in terms of God’s values, so different from those of the world. It is precisely those who are poor in worldly terms, those thought of as lost souls, who are the truly fortunate ones, the blessed, who have every reason to rejoice and exult in the midst of their sufferings. The Beatitudes are promises resplendent with the new image of the world and of man inaugurated by Jesus, his “transformation of values.”

[…]

The paradoxes that Jesus presents in the Beatitudes express the believer’s true situation in the world in similar terms to those repeatedly used by Paul to describe his experience of living and suffering as an Apostle: “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Cor 6:8–10). “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor 4:8–9). What the Beatitudes in Luke’s Gospel present as a consolation and a promise, Paul presents as the lived experience of the apostle. He considers that he has been made “last of all,” a man under a death sentence, a spectacle to the world, homeless, calumniated, despised (cf. 1 Cor 4:9–13). And yet he experiences a boundless joy.

These paradoxes are likewise present in the Laozi, professing the inversion of worldly values in accordance with the Dao. Consider verse 8:

The highest good is like water. The goodness of water lies in benefiting the myriad things without contention, while locating itself in places that common people scorn. Therefore it is almost exactly like the Dao.

The image of water is a common symbol or metaphor of the Dao, but the paradox of “reversion” goes deeper:

The crooked will be whole;
The bent will be straight;
The empty will be full;
The exhausted will be renewed;
The few will win out;
The many will be thrown into confusion.
Therefore the sage holds to oneness
And in this way serves as the shepherd of the world.
He has no regard for himself, and so is illustrious;
He does not show himself, and so is bright;
He does not brag, and so is given merit;
He does not boast, and so his name endures.
It is only because he does not contend that no one in the world is able to contend with him.
When the ancients said, “The crooked will be whole,” these were not idle words. Truly they return us to wholeness.

The idea of reversion is personified in verse 20 of the Laozi:

The multitude are loud and boisterous
As if feasting at the tailao offering
Or climbing terraces in the Spring.
I am instead tranquil and make no display,
Like an infant that has not yet learned to smile,
Drifting as though with no home to return to.
The multitude all have more than they need.
I alone am in want.
I have the mind of a fool—how blank!
The common people are bright,
I alone am dull.
The common people are clever,
I alone am muddled.
Vast! Like the ocean.
Endless! As if never stopping.
The multitude all have a purpose.
I alone am ignorant and uncouth.
My desires alone are different from those of others
Because I value being fed by the Mother.

The connection between the “way of heaven” and the attitude of the sage is reinforced time and time again:

Heaven is eternal, the Earth everlasting.
How come they to be so? It is because they do not foster their own lives;
That is why they live so long.
Therefore the Sage
Puts himself in the background; but is always to the fore.
Remains outside; but is always there.
Is it not just because he does not strive for any personal end
That all his personal ends are fulfilled?

What can we make of this? I think it it plausible on finding a pre-Christian depiction of a mysterious ontological entity that creates, sustains, and guides all of creation (the ten-thousand things), and does so in a distinctively humble way, that the authors of this depiction were “inspired” in Christian terms, or to put it more plainly, were in fact aware albeit dimly of the source of all existence (that which men call God), and in a context that quite uniquely among pre-Christian religions focuses not on sovereignty, deity, and grandeur, but on the subtlety and obscurity of this seemingly ephemeral “Way”.  Wang Bi writes that such is its emptiness, if we say it exists then where is its form? If we say it doesn’t exist, then how do we explain its creation, the forms it gives rise to? Yet despite the obvious obscurity and paradox, as Laozi writes:

My words are very easy to understand and very easy to put into practice. Yet no one under heaven understands them; no one puts them into practice. But my words have an ancestry, my deeds have a lord; and it is precisely because men do not understand this that they are unable to understand me.
Few then understand me, but it is upon this very fact my value depends. It is indeed in this sense that “the Sage wears hair-cloth on top, but carries jade underneath his dress.”

In a Christian context various religions are seen as reflecting to varying degrees the truths of natural theology, and potentially even pre-figuring deeper aspects of revealed theology, such as the notion of a God who is sacrificed or killed and returns to life.  What makes Daoism unique is that its elements are both more subtle than natural theology, clearly apophatic, yet avoiding a deistic view of supreme being that otherwise tends to plunge religions into the worship of more spurious particulars of their conception of God.

Or perhaps to be more fair, it is very easy to distinguish between the philosophical Daoism of Laozi, and the folk-religion Daoism that venerates him amongst a colorful pantheon that bears no resemblance to Christianity whatsoever. In other religions, these elements tend to be more closely intertwined such that the personal or the deistic (Buddha, Vishnu, Krishna, etc) are bound up in the theology and the mysticism.

For better or worse, I find that the impersonal apophatic language of certain Daoist texts and their themes provides a different perspective on the highly personal and often cataphatic language and themes of Christianity, where even the word “God” can be so heavily loaded with meanings, allusions and human projections that the ontological magnitude and significance, not to mention the “foreignness” of the supreme being is forgotten.

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