In his book The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton writes that there are two vantage points from which one can see the Church as she really is. One is from inside the Church, and the other is from completely outside it. At the time he wrote, he perceived that many Westerners were stuck in the “penumbra” of the Church, neither close enough to it nor far enough from it to see it clearly. I think there was a time when I was in the same position. I claimed to be rejecting Christianity without realizing how many Christian ideas I took for granted without identifying them as such.
One of the interesting things about moving to Japan was the opportunity to see the Church from that second vantage point–completely outside it. We’re talking about a culture in which worshiping fox statues is considered conservative. Let me give you a recent example of a time that the difference between Eastern and Western thought was brought into sharp relief for me.
At work, I’m part of a four-member translation team consisting of two native English speakers and two native Japanese speakers. This is a great way to translate because if I ever need to clarify the meaning of a Japanese phrase, I can ask the native Japanese speaker sitting next to me, and if I want to run a couple English phrases by another native English speaker to see which one sounds better, I can do that, too. It also led to the following interesting situation.
One day at the office, a coworker came up to the translation team with a question. She showed us a translation that included a phrase that said something like “harmony between nature and people.” In the English, the word order had been reversed to be “harmony between people and nature,” and she wanted to know if this wasn’t an error.
One of the Japanese members of the translation team suggested that the first word order was more natural in Japanese–nature comes first because it is considered greater than people (and therefore worshiped). I added that the second word order was more natural in English–people come first because they are the masterpiece of God’s creation.
At this point I actually had to summarize the creation story, because it was a novel concept. “On the first five days God created the sun and moon, land and water, plants and animals. On the sixth day He created man, and that was His masterpiece. After that He stopped creating things. And He put man in charge of all the other things, to take care of them. So man is the most important.” You could see the wheels turning as she tried to imagine this.
I, on the other hand, realized how much those of us who grew up with the creation story take for granted. How would I think and act differently if, like my Japanese coworker, I had never imagined that man was in any way superior to a rock or a tree?
I might handle inanimate objects as gently as if they were babies. I might be strikingly humble and reluctant to make waves, thinking of myself as one element of an ecosystem, whose purpose was to harmonize with the other parts. I might even design infuriating tourist pamphlets in which each page contained a million pictures, each of which required a magnifying glass to see (okay, sorry, had to get that out!).
In short, I might think and act like a Japanese person.