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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Tao and God

Question: Derek, a while back there was an online discussion about your treatment of chapter 4. Someone asked about your use of "God" in your translation, because the concept of God seemed a bit odd in the context of the Tao. I thought this was a valid question, but the people offering answers could only guess at the reason for your usage. Can you give us your perspective on this issue?

Answer: There may be some confusion because we tend to use the word "God" in a Judeo-Christian sense, but this is not the only possible meaning of the word. Throughout history, the concept of a supreme deity appeared independently all over the world, so let us not be hasty in our assumptions.

In chapter 4, the original term was di, as in tian di, the Heavenly Emperor. The concept of this deity in Chinese culture predates Lao Tzu by thousands of years. The idea was that just as the earthly Emperor ruled the mortal realm, the Heavenly Emperor ruled the cosmos. Of all the gods from Chinese folklore and mythology, the Heavenly Emperor occupied the foremost position.

With this understanding, we can see the meaning of chapter 4 much more clearly. When Lao Tzu says the image of the Tao must precede God, he is making the point that even the foremost deity of the cosmos must follow certain principles. Creation and evolution make sense. They exhibit an underlying order we can observe. They are comprehensible, at least to some extent, to the human intellect. The fact that this comprehension is possible at all means the Tao must be present. Therefore, Lao Tzu is pointing out the inescapable truth is that the image of the Tao (whatever principles underlie the working of the divine) must already be in place in order to allow for the presence of God.

An interesting aside is that although Lao Tzu was referring to the Heavenly Emperor, his point is equally applicable to any concept of the supreme deity from any culture.


Richard said...

Is there a case for using 'heavenly emperor' or 'emperor' in the translation, instead of God; or would that be too much of a shift from the original to be able to justify it?

Derek said...

Good question. I thought about this quite a bit when I came to the last line of the chapter. Upon consideration, I was forced to reject "Emperor," because it could very easily give the wrong impression. "Heavenly Emperor" seems to me more like explaining than translating, and there is no "tian" character in the original. In the end, I chose "God" as the nearest linguistic equivalent, knowing that it could also give the wrong impression (that somehow Lao Tzu knew of Yahweh).

My thinking sort of went like this: either way, I have to explain it in the commentary section anyway. When that is the case, I should pick the one that is more concise, to be in keeping with the Tao. Less is more!

Richard said...

That's the importance of a commentary, I guess. Do you think that, especially in the west, we miss out for the lack of commentaries that in the east have provided such clarity?

Derek said...

It's sort of like learning Tai Chi by watching video tape. You sort of get the idea and you can imitate what you see on TV, but there's no real expert around to tell you where your form is off. And sometimes, a small adjustment makes a huge difference.