I have been reading Tao Te Ching: The Definitive Edition by Lao Tzu, translated by Jonathan Star for quite a while now. Sounds like light lunch time reading, doesn’t it? In the introduction I was struck with the similarity between the Tao Te Ching and the Holy Bible. Please hear me out. The first similarity was the difficulty in preserving a knowledge base that was primarily oral. Both the Tao Te Ching and the stories of the Holy Bible were oral traditions that were written down at a later time. There are many similar challenges including the writer’s own biases when hearing and re-telling a story, the political and cultural influences of the time, language translation issues, and poor memory. Have you ever played telephone? By the time you get even 2-3 people deep into the retelling of a message it can often be significantly altered, not just in the details, but in the real message of the story.
The second similarity that struck me was the question of whether the story or phrase was intended to be literal or illustrative. This quandary is often evident in Bible stories and there is considerable discord between the factions that believe that everything is literal and those who believe it is a figurative lesson meant to inspire or teach.
A third similarity was that reading the verses of the Tao Te Ching elicits more questions that the answers provided. That has often been my experience when reading from the Bible. I can easily generate long lists of “but what about…?” from either book.
You may be wondering where Abraham Lincoln fits in all of this. As I was thinking about writing this post I recalled an event many years ago when my older son, then about 3 or 4, was almost inconsolable when he asked me about the man whose face was on the penny. I told him about Abraham Lincoln, and he asked me where he was. I explained that he had been killed many years ago. My son began crying. When asked why he was crying he stated, “because I’ll never get to know him.” That is also the truth of the Tao Te Ching and the Holy Bible. We will never really know.
As seekers of truth and wisdom we can make best guesses, sit in meditation, engage in prayer, and evaluate the cumulative knowledge of others, but we will never really know. For me it does feel sad. So much has been lost.
Beyond the wisdom of the texts, what can I learn from this?
- Don’t assume that others will remember my stories accurately
- If it is important, I should write it down
- It is my responsibility to share the stories of my “tribe”, culture, and my life. No one else can really do it.
- If I want to know the stories and beliefs of my ancestors, I need to ask while they are still here and able to share them with me. I wait at my own peril.