In The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton proposes that pre-Christian Europe had more in common with Asia than with post-Christian Europe. Or in other words, the greatest divide between cultures is the divide between pagan and Christian. It’s a divide that sometimes hides under the labels “East and West” (think about it).
I’ve written about how living in Japan allowed me to experience a non-Christian society firsthand, and how it was more different than I could’ve imagined, or could even describe now. Even when I called myself an atheist, I still sensed that there was something missing in Japan–some sense of the grand and romantic–although I couldn’t say what.
To be honest, I think the Japanese feel it, too. It’s why they’ve appropriated the trappings of Christmas, hold mock-Christian-style weddings, and have a national obsession with the Baroque. This, I think, is the popular feeling. Historically, the official stance of Japan has been to reject Christianity but otherwise accept (at times grudgingly) Westernization. But to accept Western culture, which is radically founded on Christianity, inevitably means accepting some Christian influence.
Still, the difference between Japan and the West is palpable. When Chesterton speaks of that spark of something magical that pagan societies found in nature and celebrated, I can only think of the colorful festivals I attended in Japan celebrating the season of fireflies or the emergence of new leaves in the spring.
It is having experienced this difference that I can sympathize so deeply with Chesterton’s description of humanity’s longing for something beautiful just beyond our grasp that was fulfilled with the birth of our Savior on Christmas.