The known and the unknowable

The first time I picked up the Japanese Catechism, I was struck by the way the first chapter title had been translated.  In Japanese, it said, 人間は神を「知ることができる」, or, to translate directly back into English, “Humans can ‘know God.'”  It was a punchy title, but seeing the idea expressed so simply, I found myself wondering why, of all the things the Catechism could have started with, it started with this.  I mean, it almost seemed kind of obvious.

Some time later, I was sitting at my desk at work when out of the blue, a coworker blurted out to me, “You’re lucky.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because you believe in Heaven,” she told me.

“Okay,” I said, not really seeing what luck had to do with that.  I mean, anyone can believe in Heaven, right?

She explained that she had been thinking about whether she would ever see her parents again after they passed away.  She thought it would be nice if she could see them again in Heaven.

“So do you think Heaven exists?” I asked.

“I don’t think we can know that,” she said, sounding confident in her resignation.  It was heartbreaking to me to see her striving for hope in her heart while embracing defeat in her mind.

Another time I was riding in a car with a Japanese friend, who proudly showed me the sonograms of her first grandchild.  After we exclaimed how cute they were, she said, “You know, I don’t believe in God, but when I see my granddaughter, I feel like I want to thank Him anyway.”

I suppose the next logical question would have been, “So why don’t you believe in God, then?”  (I mean, it’s kind of bizarre to be thankful to someone who doesn’t exist, right?)  But I got the feeling, from the way she said it, that it was one of those things.  One of those, “We can’t know that” things.

The Japanese have a penchant for logical thinking that can lead to some refreshingly sane practices.  But I think they may also have a tendency to confine themselves to the known.  In fact, I think part of the unique atmosphere of Japan is the cocoon-like sensation that there is no unknown.  From a population density that doesn’t allow for a whole lot of wilderness, to “set phrases” that allow you to have entire conversations on autopilot, to inflexible protocols at work, a whole lot of things here belong to the known.

But that may also make it tempting to conflate the unknown with the unknowable.

Perhaps to a Japanese person, “Humans can ‘know God'” isn’t obvious at all.  It might even be a revolutionary idea.

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One comment on “The known and the unknowable

  1. […] The article then proposes that the reason for Japan’s rejection of Christianity can be found in Endo Shusaku’s fictionalized account of the Keicho Mission, The Samurai.  Endo’s view of Catholicism, as suggested by the excerpts from the novel printed in the article, sound for all the world as if he had put down the Gospel in disgust after the Crucifixion and never read so far as the Resurrection.  He seems to think that not only do the Japanese not believe in the supernatural, but are incapable of believing in it.  Furthermore, he seems to suggest that Rome might share this view and have given up on Japan as hopeless.  I’ve written about my encounters with a similar attitude in Japan, that of “We can’t know that.” […]

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