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Seeing the Gospel from Zhuangzi’s Worldview

From the series What a Daoist Might Teach Us about Contextualizing Christianity

In this final post, I ponder what Zhuangzi might teach Christians about the nature of the gospel. The first post reviewed the history of what made Zhuangzi’s teachings so resonant with Buddhism and the second post I highlighted key themes from Zhuangzi’s teachings that paved the way for Buddhism’s contextualization. 

The question guiding this post is, “How might the gospel be read if we approached it through Zhuangzi’s eyes?” Just as the Chinese approached Buddhist scriptures with Zhuangzi’s value system as a starting point, perhaps can we experiment in reading the gospel with Zhuangzi’s teachings as the frame rather than Western cultural norms. 

This is particularly important when considering how the great introduction of John’s gospel is translated. In the Chinese Bible, the “Word” that has existed since the beginning of time, that became flesh and dwelled among us, is rendered as the “Dao.” It is, therefore, not unreasonable to expect many Chinese to bring traditional conceptions of the “Dao" to their interpretation of Christianity. To help facilitate this reflection, I will share three biblical passages that I believe contain resonance with the themes I identified in the Zhuangzi passages from my previous posts. 

Transformation and Being Born Again

The first is a famous exchange between Jesus and a curious Pharisee struggling to understand transformation:

Jesus replied, "Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again." "How can someone be born when they are old?" Nicodemus asked. "Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!" Jesus replied, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘you must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." (John 3:3-8)

In this passage, we see Jesus and Nicodemus discussing what it means to be “born again.” For Nicodemus, such a concept seems illogical and impossible. Jesus’ response is that the new birth is not one of body but of spirit. If we come to this passage with Zhuangzi’s worldview, the words of Jesus carry traces of what Daoists believed to be a complete transformation of both the body and soul when intimately connected to the Dao. After all, becoming born again is as physically impossible as it is to become a butterfly, is it not?  

How Christians experience the transformation of new birth is not something that can be fully understood by human reason alone. Zhuangzi’s reflections on the dynamic experience of dreaming, of waking up from one reality into another, gestures toward this possibility of the impossible. 

Effortlessly Growing the Fruit of the Spirit 

A natural question to follow is just what does a transformed life look like? For this, let us to turn to the words of the Apostle Paul:

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law… But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. (Galatians 16-18, 22-25)

The power of the Holy Spirit to transform our character is a cherished part of many Christian traditions. When one reads this passage through the lens of Zhuangzi’s story of the master butcher, an important question emerges: What kind of effort must we apply to our spiritual lives to exhibit the fruit of the spirit? What does it mean to “keep in step with the spirit?”  

For Zhuangzi, transformation is a process of unlearning society’s rules to become grounded in the Dao. What begins with effort slowly becomes as natural as breathing. The result is a seemingly supernatural capacity to do whatever it is one’s sense of vocation requires. For the butcher, it was cutting meat. For a Christian, perhaps it is exhibiting the fruit of the spirit. If we apply Zhuangzi’s teachings to Paul’s, there are real implications for what the means and goals of discipleship ought to be. Is there a point when love, joy, and peace become effortless if we abide in the spirit?

Useless Trees and Mustard Seeds

Zhuangzi taught that the true meaning of the Dao could not simply be utilized for earthly matters by praising the worthlessness of a great tree that no carpenter could manage to cut down. This reference to great trees reminds us of Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed: 

He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches." (Matthew 13:31-32)

What is a great tree for? For Zhuangzi the beauty of a “useless” tree is its natural capacity to stretch out and provide goodness for the world. For Jesus, the beauty of a tiny mustard seed is, similarly, its ability to grow into a great tree that provides homes for the birds. These stories share a common core regarding the great worth of things that might appear insignificant. While ugly trees and mustard seeds may not seem like items of tremendous value, they are likened to the Dao and the kingdom of God itself. 

The Challenge of Seeing the Gospel with New Cultural Eyes

Inspired by Jackson Wu’s edited collection of articles on contextualization of the gospel in China, these posts are experiments regarding how the gospel might be interpreted from a different cultural starting point. They assume the gospel does not simply transform cultural values but also that cultural values can bring new light to the gospel.

What we learn from studying Buddhism’s transformation from foreign to indigenous faith is that the Chinese worldview, shaped in large part by Zhuangzi’s teachings, was made ready to receive Buddhist ideas based on common language and questions. This reception of Buddhism was thus led by Confucian—Daoist values. In the same way, Chinese steeped in the cultural legacies of their ancestors are sure to read Christian teachings with a particular set of values already in place. 

While these Chinese values are sure to be transformed by the gospel, should not those of us raised to read Scripture through the lens of Western cultural values also be challenged by a new cultural standpoint?  This was the challenge faced by many who endeavored to share the gospel in times past from the Jesuits to China Inland Mission. To intentionally engage such dynamics ourselves is to enter a greater reality of God’s work: one that not only includes bringing good news to others but also of discovering new facets of the good news we couldn’t see before.

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Easten Law

Easten Law

Easten Law is the Assistant Director for Academic Programs at the Overseas Ministries Study Center at Princeton Theological Seminary (OMSC@PTS). His research focuses on lived theology, public life, and religious pluralism in contemporary China. He completed his PhD at Georgetown University, an MDiv at Wesley Theological Seminary, and an MA …View Full Bio

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