Chapter 4 – God and the Lexicographers
Tao is empty (like a bowl),
It may be used but its capacity is never exhausted.
It is bottomless, perhaps the ancestor of all things.
It blunts its softness,
It unties its tangles.
It softens its light.
It becomes one with the dusty world.
Deep and still, it appears to exist forever.
I do not know whose son it is.
It seems to have existed before the Lord
There are few words in this chapter, but they convey so much more than I could possibly discuss in this essay. It speaks of substance and function, of time and space.
I have a friend named Rick who tells me he can mentally grasp the concept of infinity. I tell him, if we take your concept and add one more of anything to it, do you still have an understanding of what that is. He says he does; so I tell him that what he conceived before was not infinity. Infinity seems to me always to be represented by a mathematical formula: (The limits of what may be conceived) + 1 = ∞.
He tells me he can grasp that concept, even if it cannot be expressed. Perhaps. I need to ask him to explain Chapter 1 of the Tao Te Ching.”
I bring this up now because I am not going to even consider what most of the present chapter may mean. I want to focus only on the last line (and maybe mention another just to show that I am thorough).
The translation above is by Wing-Tsit Chan. Below, I have borrowed a table from another website comparing it with other translations:
|Ch. 04||Sentence 5|
|Beck||I do not know its source. It seems to have existed before the Lord.|
|Blackney||Whose offspring it may be I do not know: It is like a preface to God.|
|Bynner||But how was it conceived? – this image Of no other sire.|
|Byrn||I don’t know who gave birth to it. It is older than the concept of God.|
|Chan||I do not know whose son it is. It seems to have existed before the Lord.|
|Cleary||I don’t know whose child it is, before the creation of images.|
|Crowley||This Dao has no Father: it is beyond all other conceptions, higher than the highest.|
|Hansen||I don’t know whose son it is. It is before the emperor of signs!|
|LaFargue||I don’t know of anything whose offspring it might be – it appears to precede God.|
|Legge||I do not know whose son it is. It might appear to have been before God.|
|Lindauer||I have no knowledge whose child it is It appears to precede the emperors.|
|LinYutan||I do not know whose Son it it, An image of what existed before God.|
|Mabry||I do not know who gave birth to it, It is older than any conception of God.|
|McDonald||Was it too the child of something else? We can hardly tell. A substanceless image of all things seemed to exist before the progenitor that we hardly know of.|
|Merel||I don’t know where it comes from; It comes before nature.|
|Mitchell||I don’t know who gave birth to it. It is older than God.|
|Muller||It is the child of I-don’t-know-who. And prior to the primeval Lord-on-high.|
|Red Pine||I wonder whose child it is it seems it was here before the Ti|
|Ta-Kao||I do not know whose offspring it is; But it looks like the predecessor of Nature.|
|Walker||But I do not know whose child it is – It came even before God.|
|Wayism||I don’t know who gave birth to it. It is older than our understanding of God.|
|Wieger||I do not know of whom it is the son (where it comes from). It seems to have been (it was) before the Sovereign.|
|World||It is older than the concept of God.|
|Wu||I do not know whose child it is; It seems to be the common ancestor of all, the father of things.|
These various translations put different spins on the language, but the concept they apparently express is that the Tao – the Way – is something which came before that which we know as God.
This idea is repeated in Chapter 42, which tells us that the Tao produced the One (the original creator of things), which in turn produced the Two, which produced the Three, which then bought about the 10,000 things. Thus, the Way is something apart from the creation process; yet integral to that process.
In our modern cosmology, if we accept the Big Bang Theory, we are told that all of space-time began as a singularity that sprang into existence and then inflated and cooled. The problem with singularities is that, by definition, they are not subject to physical laws. Therefore, we are unable to describe, or even attempt to describe what existed before that singularity, or why or how it came to exist. Lao Tzu would tell us it came from the Tao.
Most concepts of God accept that divine concept as the ultimate creator. Whether that means he is the being spoken of in Genesis who brought about all that exists in seven days or the unknowable force which produced the original singularity, God is seen as the First Cause.
Under any of the cited translations, Lao Tzu does not dispute that understanding. He tells us that what we know as God is in fact the One, which is the source of the entire physical world. However, he tells us further that there is something beyond our understanding which is the source of what humanity is able to know and accept as the Divine.
Certainly our language is lacking when called upon to express ideas beyond what can be known in the material world. Chan’s translation includes a footnote following the word “seems” in the last line of this chapter. He states, “[t]he word hsiang here means ‘seems’ and repeats the feeling expressed in the word ‘appear’ two lines before.” This would imply that the Tao only seems to predate what we (or the ancient Chinese) can conceive as the First Cause because all ultimately exists beyond space-time; a space where the only time is Now.
The more I try to verbalize these abstract thoughts, the more I will need to untie my tangles (see, I did mention another line) and the more I feel I am confusing any reader. So, let me turn to my rational Western heritage – the world of Summa Theologica -and conclude with a quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church which is not so different from what Lao Tzu might be telling us: “The world, and man, attest that they contain within themselves neither their first principle nor their final end, but rather they participate in Being itself, which alone is without origin or end. Thus, in different ways, man can come to know that there exists a reality which is the first cause and final end of all things, a reality that ‘everyone calls God’ [quoting St. Thomas Aquinas]. … Admittedly, in speaking about God like this, our language is using human modes of expression. …Likewise we must recall that … ‘concerning God we cannot grasp what he is, but only what he is not, and how other beings stand in relation to him.’ [again quoting Aquinas]”
I am going to ask Rick to explain all this to me – if we get past the “plus one.”