I came across an article today in The Daily Utah Chronicle, a paper of the University of Utah. The article was published in 2006 by a member of the Church, Andrew Kirk, entitled, “Mormons ought to read Taoist scripture.” After having studied Chinese philosophy and religion in depth, particularly from the Taoist scripture Tao Te Ching, Kirk makes the statement that there are many similarities in the teachings between the two disciplines.
Mormons believe their church’s teachings come straight from God through prophets. LDS historians love to study how the teachings appear to be influenced heavily by the historical context of the teachers. I found ideas in the Tao Te Ching that agree with LDS Church teachings even though the historical contexts are as different as apples and orange xylophones.
The most interesting insight to me was what he said about temples:
The place I find the most LDS teachings that remind me of the Tao Te Ching is in temples. I propose that the ancient Chinese philosophers were trying to teach the same concepts as many of the LDS prophets. I’m not suggesting there are similarities; I’m suggesting they are the same ideas.
How Did It Get There?
If the LDS temple is steeped with Taoist philosophy then it begs the question, “how did it get there?” Joseph Smith certainly wasn’t a scholar of Taoist philosophy and religion and probably never picked up a copy of the Tao Te Ching during his lifetime. I just don’t think those kinds of Far Eastern religious texts were widely available in 19th century frontier America. There are a few options:
- Phenomenal coincidence
- One copied the other
- They both sprung from the same source
Considering that it would take a good stretch of the imagination to propose how Joseph Smith might have copied Taoist philosophy, Occam’s razor leaves us with the best solution in option 3.
I’m not a Taoist expert, but just by reading about some of the beliefs of Taoism on Wikipedia I can start to see parallels with the restored gospel, just as Andrew Kirk did. Those more experienced in Taoism might help us discover some of the more striking similarities between the two. Can you see any?
Learning From Others
Another comment by Kirk struck a cord with me, particularly because it relates to the very purposes of this blog:
Many students say it is useful to hear the same academic principles taught by different teachers because the different explanations of the same ideas enhance understanding. From what I understand of the Tao Te Ching and LDS theologies, I believe many other readers would agree that some of the same principles are taught in both books even though they are explained so differently.
The scattered fragments of the gospel can be found in every quarter of the earth, and by studying them we may gain a deeper understanding of the gospel. All the principles of the fullness of the gospel have been revealed at one time or another in the ages before the calling of the prophet Joseph Smith in this last dispensation of the world. We are left with remnants in many of the religious philosophies of man. Can we learn more about the restored gospel by studying them? Terryl Givens suggested an answer in his 2007 FAIR conference address:
Today I want to show how my own appreciation for and understanding of the pre-existence has been enriched, and broadened, by a comparative study of the idea and its myriad appearances in the history of philosophy, theology, and literature. What I have come to appreciate is this cardinal insight: If the restoration is not yet complete, then other traditions have much to teach us. Not by way of confirming, corroborating, or verifying the truths we already have. But by way of actually adding to the body of revealed doctrine we call precious and true. The Restoration is neither full nor complete. . . . As Brigham characterized his position, “If you can find a truth in heaven, earth or hell, it belongs to our doctrine. We believe it; it is ours; we claim it.” It takes real humility and generosity of spirit to be taught. Our contemporary condescension in this regard was clearly foreign to a prophet who showed the world he could translate gold plates written in Reformed Egyptian, then hired a Jewish schoolmaster to teach him Hebrew. ((http://fairlds.org/FAIR_Conferences/2007_When_Souls_Had_Wings.html))
This site also serves as a form of “educative apologetics,” a term Kevin Barney borrows from Roger Keller:
I personally have never had much interest in chicken fighting directly with anti-Mormons. Uggh. [FAIR doesn’t do that, BTW, which is why I’m involved with that group.] But I am very passionate about what Roger Keller describes as educative apologetics, which is really more inward directed-trying to protect our own people from the adverse effects of negative criticism of the Church. And the way to protect them is through education. ((Comment on By Common Consent – http://www.bycommonconsent.com/2008/02/considering-our-dismay/#comment-169295))
Here we hope to help appropriately educate Church members and others about our temple beliefs, and parallel ritual practices throughout history, and in this way help protect them against the material that the anti-Mormon community produces about the Lord’s house.