Blessed are those who mourn

Is your self-control making you happy or making you miserable?

If you’re fortunate, it will be making you miserable. I think that’s the meaning of “Blessed are those who mourn”, because it’s the mourners who find comfort.

In English, to comfort originally meant to be strengthened or made strong.

The Greek is from parakaleó which breaks down into call (kaleo) from close beside (para). The word itself has a variety of meanings: ask, beg, implore, plead, as well as comfort, urge, and exhort.

If you aren’t mourning, you can’t be comforted.

Another reference that comes to mind is the difficulty of the rich in entering heaven.

Why should it be difficult for the rich to enter heaven? Because their wealth lends them temporal power and makes them more liable to fall into the illusion of self-sufficiency.

Riches aren’t the problem – it’s the illusion of self-sufficiency, rich or poor, that blinds us to our absolute dependence on God.

As in Buddhism, I think the message is that it is better to mourn – to openly suffer and find no comfort in the world – because whatever comfort and happiness we do attain in a state of pride and illusory self-sufficiency is doomed to fail.

Likewise the poor in spirit. As one commentary puts it:

Here the blessedness is that of those who, whatever their outward state may be, are in their inward life as those who feel that they have nothing of their own, must be receivers before they give, must be dependent on another’s bounty, and be, as it were, the “bedesmen” of the great King.

A bedesman or beadsman was someone who lived on a noble’s alms in exchange for praying for their master’s soul.

One explanation is that “bead” means prayer. The other explanation is that “bede” comes from the Old English for “bid, bidding”. The point might be moot anyhow, since prayer and bid share a common root. But the “bedesman” definition is more fitting in the quotation above, since it implies total dependence on the King, and readiness to do his bidding.

The love of suffering

Something strange crops up if you read the works of various Christian mystics. They start talking about the joy they find in suffering, and even their growing desire to suffer.

But it makes sense if you consider our capacity as human beings to adjust to drastic changes in circumstance.

I once heard of a study that examined people’s self-reported happiness before and after major positive and negative events. I’m sure the story has been distorted, since the study design is either implausible or horrendously unethical, as you’ll see.

The story I heard was that researchers examined the happiness levels of people who had suffered the loss of a limb, and another group who had won substantial sums of money.

The point was that regardless of the event, within a number of months both groups had returned to their previous levels of happiness.

The story might not be true, but the central claim is something we’ve all witnessed in our own lives and in the lives of others. When the unthinkably bad or unimaginably wonderful occurs, we adapt to it sooner than we would ever expect from the outset.

Our minds excel at papering over existential crises. They also struggle to accept radical discontinuities in our life story.

Whatever your ‘set-point’ of happiness is, chances are you’ll return to that set-point over time. It would take a truly deep, meaningful, and enduring change to make a lasting impression, for better or for worse.

That’s why these saints and mystics want to keep suffering. Suffering prevents their sense of self-sufficiency, their self-conceit, from papering over the cracks once more.

And there’s an inevitability to suffering that gives it primacy over joy. I mean, we could go in the other direction – desiring impenetrable success and self-confidence, wanting to not only paper over the cracks but fill them in and concrete over the whole messy thing.

But it will fail eventually, one way or another. We are all going to die, so why strive to build our happiness on things that will fall apart before the end…not to mention what might come after the end.

There’s another reference: the wise man who builds on rock versus the fool who builds on sand.

We are exhorted to “store up treasure in heaven”, which to my mind implies learning to love God and letting go of the illusion of self-control.

Suffering helps us do that, because the part of us that suffers the most is the part we need to let go of.

Spiritual pride

Our pride is not easily defeated.

Maybe you’re fortunate, and your suffering, your natural poverty of spirit has helped you to see through delusions of self-sufficiency.

But when those who mourn are comforted, they might stop mourning. They might start thinking they understand how it all works. They might begin to feel in control, to feel self-sufficient, albeit in a spiritual rather than a worldly sense.

With spiritual pride the rules don’t change: the solution is still to recognise that we are not in control, or that the self who feels like it is in control is an illusion.

The difference is that whereas this realisation first came as a relief – a comfort against the struggle and suffering in life – now that we have found a measure of spiritual pride it comes as a thief in the night, threatening to take away what feels like a great success, the fruit of our spiritual efforts and understanding.

I think this is the general rule: those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. The freedom that comes with grace is a joy and relief when we are burdened and weighed down by suffering. But it is a threat and accompanied by fear when we already feel on top of the world, in charge of our lives.

And when that sense of being in control is spiritual pride, the prospect of being humbled is even more fearsome and confusing because it threatens to shake our spiritual foundation.

That’s why a recurring theme of mysticism is the principle of reversion: within the polar opposites of light and dark, joy and suffering, fullness and emptiness,  we should emulate the divine by embracing the lower half:

The Way itself is thus described in terms of “lower” qualities that actually encompass their opposites (“empty yet full”), and the best advice is to emulate the Way and hold fast to the conventionally lower element of the dyad. Once one is able to accomplish this, both sides of the dyad will be obtained.

The principle of reversion never ends. God never ceases to lower Himself, why should we?

Glory to God in the Lowest

Because of the things I’ve read, I take for granted now that there are two levels of reality.

There’s the world we’re used to, and there’s a deeper reality that is comprised of a different kind of being described universally as divine.

The mystics in every religion claim to have formed a relationship with this divine reality that somehow puts right the deficiencies and apparent failings of the world.

In other words, though this divine reality is hidden from view, in truth it overshadows the world.

Christmas celebrates the time when this divine reality entered into the world, and theologians have grappled for an appropriate depiction of how this transcendent, perfect, being can possibly have participated in a mundane, imperfect reality.

The incarnation itself tells us something about the nature of God. In case we struggled to work it out, that message was reiterated in the story of his birth – the lowliness of his condition, the humility of his circumstances.

In case we missed it, this message was repeated again in the works he performed, the people he travelled with and taught, or treated as friends.

If the message still didn’t get through, he said it himself as clearly as possible: the first shall be last and the last shall be first; he who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.

In his betrayal and death, both the fact that he did die and the humiliating manner of his execution, the message was repeated, corresponding to the words of the prophet before him.

The whole journey from beginning to end expands like a fractal, repeating itself on every scale to reveal the nature of the divine being.

It’s a theme, a motif picked up and presaged by prophets, sages, wise men and holy men and women of all nations: that the truth is not found in the empty greatness and glory that the world offers, that the path to God is opposed to our own self-aggrandisement, whether it be in the outright arrogance of wanting to look down on others, or the more subtle craving for autonomy, self-control, the illusion of our own dominion.

Gloria in Profundis

There has fallen on earth for a token
A god too great for the sky.
He has burst out of all things and broken
The bounds of eternity:
Into time and the terminal land
He has strayed like a thief or a lover,
For the wine of the world brims over,
Its splendour is spilt on the sand.

Who is proud when the heavens are humble,
Who mounts if the mountains fall,
If the fixed stars topple and tumble
And a deluge of love drowns all-
Who rears up his head for a crown,
Who holds up his will for a warrant,
Who strives with the starry torrent,
When all that is good goes down?

For in dread of such falling and failing
The fallen angels fell
Inverted in insolence, scaling
The hanging mountain of hell:
But unmeasured of plummet and rod
Too deep for their sight to scan,
Outrushing the fall of man
Is the height of the fall of God.

Glory to God in the Lowest
The spout of the stars in spate-
Where thunderbolt thinks to be slowest
And the lightning fears to be late:
As men dive for sunken gem
Pursuing, we hunt and hound it,
The fallen star has found it
In the cavern of Bethlehem.

Good Friday notes 2016

Reaching the end of your tether can be a positive experience. It’s a little cliche to say “the darkest night is before the dawn”, but I’m okay with letting the cliche stand when it’s this important.

Today is Good Friday in the Western Christian calendar, and though it isn’t the darkest night – the dawn being still two days away – it is nonetheless a grim entry into the event that epitomises the principle of reversion.

Reaching the end of your tether can mirror this principle of reversion to greater or lesser degrees once we realise that our old ways, our old efforts, our old self is just not going to cut it; when we recognise without caveats or excuses that something more is required.

For me this has translated into a sincere conviction that without some kind of spiritual/mental discipline I am in danger of being entirely depleted by the demands of daily life.

When it comes to such disciplines, I’ve done a lot of window-shopping and a lot of test-driving. I’ve seen and read enough to make me cynical of some people’s aims, methods and intentions as well as pessimistic about the benefits that accrue.

But a sincere effort requires a careful retreat from cynicism and pessimism. It’s true that there’s a lot of rubbish being sold, and a lot of things presented as one-size-fits-all solutions. That hasn’t worked for me in any other area of life, so why would it work in this one?

Struggling to learn a martial art has taught me that I can’t afford to take anything for granted. Nor is it simply a matter of asking lots of questions. We have to bear in mind personal idiosyncrasies, temperament, life experience, and individual circumstances, and the more you diverge from the mean, the more the onus is on you to recognise and understand where and how you diverge.

We are all individuals, but some of us are more individual than others.

For this reason I wouldn’t try to sway other people any more than I would let myself be unduly swayed. I have to practice a kind of philosophical autarky.

This also means I need to advance on the basis of what I know to be true, not on the basis of what I can prove to others, and on the personal level of overcoming compulsions and dealing with harmful emotions it is far more important to adhere to a discipline that works than to seek theoretical certitude of its metaphysics and merits. Just as you can accept life-saving help from a stranger without first establishing an internally coherent and externally robust theory of charity, reciprocity, and justice.

I once read a description of a philosopher as someone who worries that what works in practice might not work in theory. It’s especially apt in my context, though a little more defensible than it sounds. Nonetheless, the prevailing theme of 2016 for me appears to be one of putting aside theoretical doubts about things I have known for many years to be useful, valuable, and true.

Reversion in Buddhism?

My PhD reading on Wang Bi the third century AD Neo-Daoist philosopher revealed the scholarly view that in his elevation of wu or “emptiness/non-being” as metaphysically and spiritually preeminent, Wang Bi prepared the way for the eventual popularity of Mahayana Buddhism in China.

In other words, Wang Bi’s metaphysical interpretation of wu gave Chinese thinkers an entry-point for the Buddhist concept of Sunyata or “emptiness”.


So I am surprised to find in a description of Sunyata allusions to something that in a Daoist context is called ‘reversion’:

Calmness and extinction are the opposite of rising and falling. They are another way to express that there is no rising and falling. Rising and falling are the common characteristics of worldly existence. All phenomena are always in the cycle of rising and falling. However, most people concentrate on living (rising). They think that the universe and life are the reality of a continuous existence.

Buddhism on the other hand, promotes the value of a continuous cessation (falling). This cessation does not imply that it ceases to exist altogether. Instead, it is just a state in the continuous process of phenomena. In this material world, or what we may call this “state of existence”, everything eventually ceases to exist. Cessation is definitely the home of all existences. Since cessation is the calm state of existence and the eventual refuge of all phenomena, it is also the foundation for all activities and functions.

The Amitabha Buddha who was, and is, revered and praised by Buddhists around the world, radiates indefinite light and life from this “state of cessation”. This state is a continuous process of calmness. It will be the eventual refuge for us all. If we think carefully about the definitions of calmness and extinction, then we can deduce that they are the true natural end-points of rising and falling. The true nature of the cycle of rising and falling is calmness and extinction. Because of this nature, all chaos and conflicts in the state of rising and falling will eventually cease. This is attainable by the realisation of prajna.

I have often seen references to impermanence in the context of Sunyata, and of course if Sunyata underlies the rising and falling of existences, then Sunyata is metaphysically prior. But I have never before seen rising and falling depicted as a cycle with human values attributed to either end of the cycle. Yet as we see above, the text describes our (incorrect) tendency to focus on the ‘rising’ part of the cycle when in fact ‘falling’ is identified as the ‘home’ and ‘foundation’ of existences, activities, and functions, such that Amitabha is depicted as radiating light and life from the “state of cessation”.

This sounds strikingly similar to the Daoist principle of reversion that Edward Slingerland has elucidated so well in his discussion of wu-wei in the Laozi (Daodejing), and which I quoted previously in my Easter Vigil Notes:

Throughout the text we are presented with dyads of metaphorically “lower” and “higher” terms: soft/hard; weak/strong; empty/full. As Benjamin Schwartz notes, the “lower” (by conventional standards) term inevitably enjoys a higher true status in Laozi’s scheme than the ostensibly “higher” term; water, as he puts it, is “in a profounder sense stronger than stone” (Schwartz 1986: 203). Such is the Way the world works: that which is conventionally “high”(e.g., strong) inevitably reverts to the low (weakness), and thus true strength thus lies in holding to “weakness.” One is able to endure by holding fast to the “roots” (to “Nothing” and the negative qualities associated with it) and not getting dragged “up” into the realm of doing and regarding.


The Way itself is thus described in terms of “lower” qualities that actually encompass their opposites (“empty yet full”), and the best advice is to emulate the Way and hold fast to the conventionally lower element of the dyad. Once one is able to accomplish this, both sides of the dyad will be obtained.

It would be intriguing and encouraging indeed if the Buddhist interpretation quoted earlier is representative of Mahayana more generally. I’ve not come across it before, though most of what I have read has been far more preoccupied with maintaining the peculiar integrity of the Buddhist concept of Sunyata, and advancing ’emptiness’ against the more compelling evidence of our senses.

Indeed, absent the ‘necessary/contingent’ distinction presented in Christian-Hellenic philosophy, I’m not sure I could ever have grasped ’emptiness’ appropriately either. Buddhism has the handicap of having originated in opposition to a religious metaphysics that had – as far as I understand it – overplayed the idea of a divine, imperishable substratum of being. So we end up with quite challenging attempts to explain ’emptiness’ as things kinda sorta both existing and not existing, which I find very unsatisfying.

Much better, in my admittedly eccentric opinion, to explain Buddhism as the realisation of the contingency of all creation, without the corresponding necessity of a creator. And yet I think the creator is there, in the very modest positive depictions of Sunyata. Buddhism is like an apophatic theology written by someone deeply traumatised by an excessive cataphatic upbringing.  Imagine someone raised in the context of an overly superficial evangelical protestantism where God is essentially depicted as an immortal superhero, subsequently having an experience of “divine darkness” a la Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite in, of course, an entirely pre-Christian and non-Judaic context:

The divine darkness is the inaccessible light in which God is said to dwell. And since He is invisible by reason of the abundant outpouring of supernatural light, it follows that whosoever is counted worthy to know and see God, by the very fact that he neither sees nor knows Him, attains to that which is above sight and knowledge, and at the same time perceives that God is beyond all things both sensible and intelligible, saying with the Prophet, “Thy knowledge is become wonderful to me; it is high, and I cannot reach to it.” In like manner, St Paul, we are told, knew God, when he knew Him to be above all knowledge and understanding; wherefore he says that His ways are unsearchable and His judgments inscrutable, His gifts unspeakable, and His peace passing all understanding; as one who had found Him who is above all things, and whom he had perceived to be above knowledge, and separate from all things, being the Creator of all.

MBTI and the melancholic

Utilising Keirsey’s temperament sorter, we can associate the four temperaments with four groupings of the Myers-Briggs 16 types. This leaves us with four variants of the melancholic temperant, the ‘NF’ types, which for the uninitiated means types who perceive intuitively (N) and arrive at judgements based on feeling (F).

Melancholics are therefore Keirsey’s Idealist types. Idealism is key to the melancholic temperament hence my use of the term melancholic idealist.  In MBTI terms the melancholic idealist is characterised by his dependence on intuition and feeling, with variations according to which function is extroverted, and whether the individual himself is introverted or extroverted.

For example, for NFP types the perceiving function (intuition) is extroverted – directed to the external world. For NFJ types the judging function (feeling) is extroverted. But even so an NFP or an NFJ may be Extroverted or Introverted, which is to say that they will be more closely attuned to their Extroverted or Introverted functions respectively.

What does this look like?

An ENFP and an INFP have the same arrangement of functions – introverted feeling (written as Fi) and extroverted intuition (Ne). But because the ENFP is overall an extrovert, their Ne plays the dominant role in their type. As introverts INFP types are dominated by their Fi.

As an INFP I find some benefit in the description of these functions and this type. For example, it is true that my life is dominated by Feeling. Not other people’s feelings, but my own, hence the ‘i’ for introversion. Having introverted Feeling as one’s dominant function is a bit like living in a house with no roof where you can’t help but be forever conscious of the weather, of which way the wind is blowing.

Extroverted intuition is like having odd or unusual patterns, resemblances, and associations constantly springing into one’s mind.  It’s partly reflected in my love of analogies, though the analogies can become stretched and strained beyond their use.

But as an INFP I can only take this kind of Myers-Briggs talk in small doses. MBTI is, after all, a very Te way of looking at things, that is, an extroverted Thinking approach, cutting up all of humanity into 16 interchangeable boxes.

Extroverted Thinking does not come naturally to me, though I can use it when motivated, when it serves some higher aim, and in fact have become so good at it that on tests my Thinking and Feeling scores vary by only a few points.

But beyond the narrow limits of extreme utility, I find Te tedious, boring, soul-destroying even; and hence I soon grow tired of reading Myers-Briggs material.

In addition, for some reason the MBTI or Keirsey’s interpretation give the impression that the melancholic idealist might find answers, understanding, and hence fulfillment. Perhaps this is implicit in its systematic Te design?

Whatever the reason, reading MBTI stuff leaves me Feeling like I’m on the verge of a discovery: if I just try a little bit harder I’ll surely break through and get the answers I so desire.

Unfortunately, this is precisely the dynamic that so dogs and distresses the melancholic idealist, and we should be wary of things that feed our idealism by offering the appearance of final answers.

This is what I love so much about the four temperaments theory and its depiction of the melancholic. As Conrad Hock writes, the melancholic must learn to love suffering, because the reality will always fall short of his ideals. Or to put it another way, we long for a perfection and a finality that cannot be met in this world.

I think this is especially harmful for the INFP whose judging function and overall orientation are so introverted and subjective. The INFP is especially prone to a kind of idealistic inflation where ideas of perfection can become ever more tantalising yet ever more elusive at the same time.

The melancholic benefits from understanding that idealism will never be wholly satisfied in this life, and a certain degree of suffering or dissatisfaction will always accompany us.

The paradox is that if we accept suffering and indeed learn to love it, we may find ourselves far happier than if we embrace an ideal devoid of suffering. I think this is why spiritual principles of inversion are especially suited to the melancholic: He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal. Or the Daoist passages I’ve often quoted:

What is most perfect seems to have something missing;
Yet its use is unimpaired.
What is most full seems empty;
Yet its use will never fail.
What is most straight seems crooked;
The greatest skill seems like clumsiness,
The greatest eloquence like stuttering.
Movement overcomes cold;
But staying still overcomes heat.
So he by his limpid calm
Puts right everything under heaven.

Thus the melancholic description – unlike the MBTI – describes the plight of the melancholic idealist in its entirety and offers a solution, perhaps the only real solution, which is to make the melancholic entirely aware of his own plight and to transcend it. The melancholic can thus idealise the non-ideal and find a kind of peace in a humble perfection.

This is not what some people might call “being realistic” or accepting imperfections, or being pragmatic. It does not drag the idealist “into the real world” but draws the real world up into the rarefied atmosphere of the ideal.  It reconciles “heaven” and “earth” but like the cross, what seems like the destruction of the former turns out to be the sanctification of the latter.


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.

Easter vigil notes

Another reading that caught my attention over the Triduum was the Easter vigil Epistle from Romans I:

If in union with Christ we have imitated his death, we shall also imitate him in the his resurrection. We must realise that our former selves have been crucified with him to destroy this sinful body and to free us from the slavery of sin. When a man dies, of course, he has finished with sin.

But we believe that having died with Christ we shall return to life with him; Christ, as we know, having been raised from the dead will never die again. Death has no power over him any more.  When he died, he died, once for all, to sin, so his life now is life with God; and in that way, you too must consider yourselves to be dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus.

Paul has never made a great deal of sense to me, and it was not until recently that I learned he is not supposed to ‘make sense’ in terms of proposing a fully developed, explicit theological system. Still, I can’t help but wonder about the nature of “union with Christ”, and in what sense we have “imitated his death”. How have we died with Christ? A friend explained it in the Catholic context of sacramental theology, which led to an interesting but inconclusive discussion. Coming from a more naive realist perspective, the key phrase would seem to be “you must consider yourselves to be dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus”, with consideration and imitation the operative factors.

In this light, what struck me was another point of comparison from my reading in Daoism, specifically the work of Edward Slingerland – Effortless Action: Wu-Wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China – which includes an intriguing analysis of dyadic metaphors of higher and lower terms in the Laozi:

Throughout the text we are presented with dyads of metaphorically “lower” and “higher” terms: soft/hard; weak/strong; empty/full. As Benjamin Schwartz notes, the “lower” (by conventional standards) term inevitably enjoys a higher true status in Laozi’s scheme than the ostensibly “higher” term; water, as he puts it, is “in a profounder sense stronger than stone” (Schwartz 1986: 203). Such is the Way the world works: that which is conventionally “high”(e.g., strong) inevitably reverts to the low (weakness), and thus true strength thus lies in holding to “weakness.” One is able to endure by holding fast to the “roots” (to “Nothing” and the negative qualities associated with it) and not getting dragged “up” into the realm of doing and regarding.


The Way itself is thus described in terms of “lower” qualities that actually encompass their opposites (“empty yet full”), and the best advice is to emulate the Way and hold fast to the conventionally lower element of the dyad. Once one is able to accomplish this, both sides of the dyad will be obtained.

In practice this spiritual ideal of embracing the lower half of the dyad and thus emulating the Way extends into some very familiar territory:

The Way does not discriminate between injury or kindness and choose its response accordingly, but nourishes equally all of the myriad things. It thus gives things life without demanding “justice” in the Confucian sense—that is, demanding to be honored and showered with ritual gratitude:

The Way gives [the myriad things] life, raises them;
Causes them to grow, nourishes them;
Perfects and matures them;
Cultivates and protects them.
Giving birth to them and yet laying no claim;
Acting, but not dwelling upon the action;
Leading without being domineering—
This is called mysterious Virtue [xuande]. (chapter 51)

So rather than discriminating—imposing human distinctions upon the world— one should emulate the Way and stick to the “lower” path: that is, to the element of dyadic distinctions (such as kindness in the dyad “sternness/kindness”) that is closest to the Way. Thus we read in chapter 79 that the sage “takes the left-hand tally, but exacts no payment from the people,” The left-hand tally is the half of a contract held by the creditor, and “uprightness” in the Confucian sense would demand that this contract be fulfilled—that the debt incurred by the creditor be paid. The Laozian sage, however, is undemanding in the same manner that the Way is undemanding, understood in terms of the social metaphor of the mother: he gives to the people and yet asks for nothing in return, holding fast to kindness and discarding the sort of sternness that would demand a quid pro quo.

So much of this is reminiscent of aspects of Christ’s teaching, such as the parable of the unmerciful servant, or the passage: “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

Finally, the promise of salvation in its various expressions, whether it be the remedial passages of the beatitudes (“the meek shall inherit the earth”), or Christ’s own reference to the book of psalms: “The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief corner stone. This is the LORD’S doing; It is marvelous in our eyes” likewise brings to completion this dyadic paradox in which “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first”:

This method of sticking to the conventionally lower, more encompassing term—and thereby attaining in reality the higher term—is referred to by Laozi in chapter 22 as “holding to oneness” (zhiyi):

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 [quan guizhi]