Book Review:

Christ, the Eternal Tao
by Hieromonk Damascene

Reviewed by Gregory Ellison
Christ, the Eternal Tao

In the beginning was the Tao,
And the Tao was with God,
And the Tao was God.
… And the Tao was made flesh
And dwelt among us …


— The Gospel of John,
translated from Chinese


For English readers, the familiar passage from the Gospel of John begins “In the beginning was the Word,” but in the original Greek it is Logos, a word that literally translates as “Word,” but that to the Greek philosophers and theologians of the time carried a much larger connotation. Logos meant the “primal order,” the very structure and pattern of reality itself. In his standard textbook, Greek Philosophy: Thales to Aristotle, Reginald E. Allen described the Logos as “the first principle of existence, that unity of the world process which sustains it as a process. This unity lies beneath the surface, for it is a unity of diverse and conflicting opposites, in whose strife the Logos maintains a continual balance … the Logos maintains the equilibrium at every moment.”

Although Professor Allen was referring to the earliest Greek Philosophers, including Thales, Heraclitus and Pythagoras, the same concept of a universal ordering principle could equally well describe the ideas of the great Chinese sage who lived at the same time (about 600 B.C.), Lao Tzu, who used the term Tao to refer to the underlying Way or Path of Heaven: the course that all things follow, the Uncreated Cause of all things.

To Fr. Hieromonk Damascene, a priest of the (Serbian) Christian Orthodox Church and the author of the marvelous book, Christ, the Eternal Tao, it is no coincidence that philosophers of the same period in different parts of the world would be inspired to write of the same idea in strikingly similar terms. Rather, he believes, they were expressing a shared “spirit of the times” in preparing the world for the physical manifestation of the Logos — the Word — six centuries later in the person of Jesus Christ. Nor was it any coincidence that when John equated the eternal Christ with “the Logos,” the Chinese translators of the Bible rendered it as “the Tao” … for they are one and the same.

There is a popular viewpoint in the New Age movement called “religious syncretism,” which holds that ultimately all religions say the same thing, albeit in many different words. While this viewpoint has a great value in promoting tolerance and recognizing that there can be only one ultimate spiritual reality however we understand it, a glib syncretism that dismisses all “particular” religious forms can also do a great disservice to our spiritual seeking, by reducing all religious insight to a least common denominator that is often a superficial gloss of spiritual ideas, and encouraging us to believe that such an abstraction is all we need to know about spirit.

Christ, the Eternal Tao is not such a book of religious syncretism. Rather, it is deeply specific in exploring both the Christian and Taoist teachings and traditions, and concludes that they address the same ultimate reality in a way that honors them both. Although the author sees Christianity as the higher expression of this reality in its concrete manifestation in the world through the person of Jesus Christ — while the Taoist sages could only know it through intuition and meditation — he does not thereby diminish Taoism in any way. To the contrary, he suggests that the Taoist approach has much to offer to moderns in today’s world, including many Christians who may have forgotten that Christianity is far more than a “belief,” but is rather a Way of life that counsels a profound and radical spiritual transformation in our entire way of being and relating to the world … a Way that has far more to do with simplicity, compassion, selflessness, service and love than with doctrine or the confession of specific articles of faith.

Fr. Damascene is the successor to Fr. Seraphim Rose, a westerner who became deeply involved with the Christian movement in China, especially through the Cultural Revolution when practice of the faith meant a swift death sentence if discovered, and who studied with Gi-ming Shien, a classical Taoist philosopher whose translation of the Tao Te Ching is quoted extensively in the book. The work is beautifully illustrated with paintings by a group of 20th-century Chinese painters who studied Christianity in order to understand the subject matter for artistic purposes, and who gradually came to believe in Christ.

Following an introduction that illuminates the parallels between Taoism and Christianity that have been noted by many teachers through the ages — including the Jesuit missionaries who translated the Tao Te Ching into Latin in 1788 to show that “the Mysteries of the Most Holy Trinity and of the Incarnate God were anciently known to the Chinese nation” — the book is divided into three sections.

The first of these is a prose-poem called “The Gospel According to Lao Tzu,” written in the style of the
Tao Te Ching (and quoting from it extensively) in a way that strongly illuminates the similarity between the spiritual message and teachings of Christ and those of Lao Tzu. The reader is admonished gently to give up the struggle for wealth and “things,” advantage over others, the desire for praise and self-aggrandizement, and return to the “natural” way, the way that identifies with all of life and when practiced fully requires no thought or effort. Let go of guile and cleverness, avarice and deceit … abandon the illusion of “specialness” and the notion that we are responsible for our own existence. We did not create ourselves. To know our true selves we must return to primal innocence. “Unless you become as a child, you shall not enter the kingdom of Heaven.”

Among my favorite passages here is the one that describes the Holy Trinity in sparse, poetic terms:

Therefore the Ancient Sage said:
“The Three produces all things.”
The Three acting as One.
One not acting without the Others.

The Triad contains itself in perfection,
For it is the first that surpasses the dyad.
It lies beyond the duality of matter,
Of subject and object,
Of self and other.

The Triad is beyond the distinction of the one
    and the many;
Its perfection goes beyond the multiplicity of which
    duality is the root.
Two is the number that separates,
Three is the number that transcends all separation.
The one and the many find themselves gathered
    together in the Three,
For the Triad, being many, is also a Unity:
Not a unity of self-absorption, but of Love.

The Mind spoke through His child, the Word,
And at His Breath there appeared the multitude of spirits.

The second part of the book is more analytical, examining the reality of the Way as expressed in both Christian and Taoist traditions in a more rigorous framework of religious scholarship. Although I personally found this part fascinating and invaluable, it may be less engaging to those who do not value the “intellectualized” reasoning of philosophical discourse.

With incisive reasoning and impeccable scholarship, Fr. Damscene discusses at length the most abstract understandings of Christianity and relates these to the equally studied analysis of Taoist thought recorded by millennia of Chinese scholars. The object is to arrive at a confidence level that the objective metaphysical reality referred to as the Tao is in fact the same reality known as the Christ. To reach this end, the discussion wades through analysis of the pre-Christian Hebrew prophets, the early Greek philosophers, the early Church fathers and the historical scholarship of both Orthodox and Catholic traditions, as well as the commentaries of Confucius, Chuang-Tzu and other Chinese interpreters of Lao Tzu. In so doing, the author tackles some of the knottiest theological questions of history, and discusses them with both intellectual rigor and objective integrity.

An especially illuminating part of this discussion for me was his presentation of the problems involved in the perception of God as both selfless (in the sense of nurturing, caring for and supporting all) AND as a “person.” This is the primary, and perhaps the only, distinction between Lao Tzu’s understanding of the Tao and Christianity’s understanding of Christ. In common with the religion of the Hebrews (and later of Islam), both Christianity and Taoism acknowledged the absolute ONEness of God. But Taoism did not see the Tao as a “person” — although Lao Tzu did verge on this understanding in attributing personal characteristics, such as benevolence, to the Tao — precisely because it is impossible to comprehend how the Absolute can be both personal and selfless, two seeming self-evidently contradictory qualities. A complementary dilemma faced the ancient Hebrews. The Hebrews did see God as a person, because of His personal revelation to Moses, but they could not then see Him as selfless. As a result, the picture that comes through in the Old Testament is of God as a stern, demanding — sometimes even petulant and egotistical — Lord of vengeance. I will leave the book’s insight into this important question for you to discover on your own, but I will say that Fr. Damascene presents it in a way that none of my previous readings and meditations have succeeded in doing so clearly.

The last section of the book — except for the excellent appendices, index, notes and bibliography — is a practical guide to personal spiritual transformation, drawing on the insights of both Taoism and Christianity (especially emphasizing the mystical traditions of Orthodox Christianity, about which we westerners generally know very little.) Step by step, Fr. Damscene introduces techniques of spiritual practice designed to quiet the ego and reawaken the eyes of the soul, with chapters on watchfulness, prayer, illumination, meditation and the experience of emptiness, the union of heart and mind, and the transmutation of suffering. These exercises are presented not merely as academic prescriptions, but with humor, compassion and insightful examples drawn from the lives of saints and sages, and will appeal to spiritual seekers from a wide variety of backgrounds.

Christ, the Eternal Tao closes with a fascinating set of appendices that include a history of the Orthodox Christian Church in China, the biographies of contemporary martyrs, the struggles of the underground “house Church” movement during and after Mao Tse Tung’s cultural revolution, and an inspiring personal letter from Fr. Seraphim Rose to a young spiritual seeker.

I highly recommend this book for both Taoists and Christians, as well as for seekers of all traditions (or none) who value intelligent discourse on the great spiritual and religious issues.