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    Are Christians the Only Ones Who Care?

    People who think Christianity invented universal human dignity should read Brook Ziporyn’s new translation of the Daodejing.

    By Kent Anhari

    February 20, 2024
    • George Marsh

      Tony, In one sense, Jesus was unique, as "the" incarnate Son of God." In another sense, Jesus known as the Christ is a universal figure, "the second Adam." He referred to himself as "the son of man," a term broadly used in his day to mean "human being." He taught his followers to pray to "our" father, indicating that all humans were of divine parentage. Faith in Jesus and doing God's will meant membership in a holy family: indeed his followers are even members of his own body, components of the vine that nourishes and gives joy to the whole human family.

    • Tony

      Excellent thought provoking article but surely the uniqueness of the message of NT lies not in a claim to unique and ‘superior’ ethic but in uniqueness of the person it bears witness to.

    My first reading of the Gospels at age fifteen effected a seismic reordering of my life, and I turned to books such as David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions and Thomas Cahill’s Desire of the Everlasting Hills to make sense of its new geography. They contrasted pagan Roman values – the cold indifference to individual human lives that made possible the circus, the worship of the military dictators as gods, and socially sanctioned infanticide – with the Christian presumption of universal human dignity.

    Lately, progressive and conservative Christians alike have been accusing their rivals of reverting to paganism. In a February 2020 essay for Commonweal, David Albertson describes a Republican Party captured by the “modern paganism” invoked in T. S. Eliot’s The Idea of a Christian Society, committed to “the nihilistic exercise of power for its own sake, especially power over weak and vulnerable bodies.” In the October 2023 issue of First Things, Louise Perry gives an account of liberal abortion law in terms of a regression to paganism:

    Most cultures – perfectly logically – glorify warriors and kings, not those at the bottom of the heap. But Christianity takes a perverse attitude toward status and puts that perversity at the heart of the theology. “God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” is a baffling and alarming claim to anyone from a society untouched by the strangeness of the Jesus movement.

    It’s true that the West has been indelibly shaped by this “Christian revolution” and, as David Bentley Hart reckons, “the liberation it offered from fatalism, cosmic despair, and the terror of occult agencies; the immense dignity it conferred upon the human person; its subversion of the cruelest aspects of pagan society; its (alas, only partial) demystification of political power.” Widespread Christian faith created the momentum for the abolition of gladiatorial combat and exposure of infants.

    But it’s not true that Christians were or are the only ones repulsed by the careless destruction of human life. When Strabo, the Greek historian and philosopher, records that the Egyptians refrained from practicing infanticide, calling it their custom that is “most to be admired,” he not only indicates the attitude of the Egyptians but suggests that he too regards the practice with abhorrence. Islam’s rejection of infanticide may have had Jewish and Christian roots, but what of Buddhism, which from its earliest days forcefully proscribed both infanticide and abortion on the grounds of strict nonviolence?

    Nor is Christianity the only religion, or even the first, to teach human dignity and to upend prevailing notions of status. If objections to the abuse of the weak by the strong are the hallmark of any tradition, it is that of China. Sweeping generalizations about Christianity’s exceptionalism are often premised upon incuriosity toward the breadth of non-Christian moral inquiry, and few traditions have been victim to this incuriosity as consistently as China’s.

    If any Western scholar can change this, it is Brook Ziporyn, a professor of Chinese religion and philosophy at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Ziporyn’s work is philosophical dynamite: vital, challenging, and charged with both playfulness and rhetorical force. He treats the Chinese philosophical tradition as a living intervention in the history of human inquiry and never with dry, scholarly disinterest. Ziporyn spent his early career probing sources little known to Anglophone audiences – Tiantai Buddhism, Song Dynasty neo-Confucianism, and the work of the third-century iconoclast Guo Xiang. Of late, he has turned to producing sparkling translations of the Daoist classics: first Zhuangzi: The Complete Writings (Hackett, 2020) and now Daodejing (Liveright Books, 2023).

    The Daodejing (also spelled Tao Te Ching) was written around four centuries before Christ. It rivals the Bible for the quantity and diversity of its translations. The original Classical Chinese of the text is terse and ambiguous, and the text itself provides no narrative context to assist in its interpretation. Translators are forced to make difficult interpretive decisions. Ziporyn’s translation stands out. Readers acquainted with other translations may recall the familiar form of the text’s opening, freighted with interpretive assumptions drawn from the later Daoist tradition regarding the eternal and unnamable Dao. Ziporyn, presuming no airy metaphysical content, opens with a bracing philosophical confrontation:

    Any course can be taken
    as the right course to take,
    but no course like that
    can be what determines them always.

    It’s a perfect way to set the stage. Ziporyn’s Daodejing is unsystematic at every turn, and he takes this to be a feature of both the form and content of the text. Though it was traditionally ascribed to Laozi (or Lao Tzu), Ziporyn reads the Daodejing as an anthology, based on both internal and external evidence – the text itself and what we can glean of its history through archaeology – “a best-of selection of exemplars of a defunct ancient genre … written by many (possibly anonymous) authors, but which have a certain identifiable stylistic and thematic signature due to their place of origin or relation to one another.” There is no single authorial voice to be rendered here, nor a single area of philosophical concern, but this very polyphony provides the Daodejing with a kind of paradoxical unity. Its coherence lies in refusal to submit to a single systematic perspective, of viewing any one course as “the course taken always.”

    This approach provides room for Ziporyn’s characteristic sense of play. Neighboring chapters can take different tacks: some, like chapter 19, are given permission to speak gravely of the “vision of the undyed blankness, embrace of the unhewn rawness,” while the very next chapter, cracking wise, asks, “What is the difference between a ‘Yes sir’ and a ‘Yeah sure’?” That’s 唯 vs. 阿: the affirmative vs. the flattering “yes,” contrasted here with charming succinctness. The sense of the text is not always made clear by moments like these, but they capture a special philosophical disposition. There are turns of levity unique to this translation, are they are not at all incidental to its understanding of the text’s meaning.

    The Daodejing refuses to systematize, but it does have an overarching sensibility. Ziporyn describes this through line in his introduction as the text’s “minimally discernable position”:

    On the one hand, we have terms like “being,” “having,” “strength, “hardness,” “name (fame),” “adulthood,” “masculinity,” “fullness,” “action,” “high,” “bright,” “flavorful,” “complete,” “formed,” “and so on. These are all things that were at the time assumed to be valued and sought. For convenience, we represent all of these valued items as belonging to category A. On the other hand, we have the opposite term, like “nonbeing,” “lacking,” “weakness,” “softness,” “nameless,” “infancy,” “femininity,” “empty,” “nondoing, “low,” “dark,” “flavorless,” “incomplete,” “formless,” and so on. These are all things or states it was assumed that readers would disvalue, would be trying to diminish or avoid or eliminate. We indicate all of these disvalued things as belonging to category B. Again and again in the Daodejing, we find the contrast of the valued A and the disvalued B, in one form or another. And we will instantly notice a tendency to invert their positions: to promote the B and demote the A.

    “Gain or loss – ” asks the Daodejing hauntingly, “which is the sickness?” Core to this text is the insistence that “the soft and yielding overcome the firm and strong.” “The highest good,” we hear, “is like water … putting itself where no one wants to go.” The way of heaven is “like the stretching of a bow”: “The high is brought low, the low is raised up.” Is this not precisely the “perverse attitude towards status” that Christians have claimed as exclusive to Christianity?

    Sam Crane, whose memoir Aidan’s Way recalls how the Daoist classics accompanied him through his son’s experience of profound disability, finds in the Daodejing a rebuke of eugenicist thinking and of attempts to master the world through scientific and administrative power. Its “upside-down morality,” in other words, has ethical consequences that will be familiar to Christians. Aristocratic cruelty, sometimes regarded as a compulsory feature of ancient literature, is absent. Violence and coercion are treated with astonishing gravity. “A skillful knight,” we hear, “does not wage war.” Consider chapter 31, addressing rulers in conflict:

    He who has killed multitudes of people
    Should weep for them with grief, with sorrow –
    to live through a victory is indeed just like conducting a funeral.

    Chapter 67 warns against selling out. The spirit wastes away as prominence and influence wax strong. These philosophical ironies show the perceptiveness of the authors, and Ziporyn’s attentiveness to them lends real force.

    Christians haven’t always sought to set themselves apart as exceptional. Around AD 248, the Christian writer Origen responded to criticism from the pagan philosopher Celsus. Celsus had argued that “only foolish and low individuals, and persons devoid of perception, and slaves, and women, and children” seemed drawn to the Christian gospel. The nascent church had opened possibilities in the lives of women and slaves that broader Roman society foreclosed, and so began a bottom-up process of transformation that would, as countless modern writers have observed, restructure the values of the West for centuries.

    But how does Origen respond? Does he insist on the unique and unprecedented nature of the Christian moral imagination? Here is his rejoinder:

    Do not philosophers invite young men to their lectures? And do they not encourage young men to exchange a wicked life for a better? And do they not desire slaves to learn philosophy? Must we find fault, then, with philosophers who have exhorted slaves to the practice of virtue? With Pythagoras for having so done with Zamolxis, Zeno with Perseus, and with those who recently encouraged Epictetus to the study of philosophy?

    Origen’s approach might surprise those of us trained in the rhetoric of Christian novelty: he situates Christian practice within an expansive tradition. The themes of the gospel – the beauty of self-surrender and obscurity, the fleetingness of earthly splendor, the brotherhood of the rich and the poor, the ill-fatedness of coercive violence – are themes that resound across centuries and civilizations.

    Why should this surprise us? How could these themes speak to our hearts if they didn’t have some aboriginal place there? Honesty obliges persons of all faiths to take their place in the broad tradition of human inquiry and spiritual aspiration seriously, and not to undersell the God-given breadth of the human moral imagination. The Daodejing is an indispensable source for persons interested in such a project, and Brook Ziporyn, attentive to its philosophical seriousness, makes a very fine guide.

    Contributed By KentAnhari Kent Anhari

    Kent Anhari is a writer and editor from Baltimore, Maryland, where he lives with his wife and two daughters.

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