The religion question

I’ll never forget the time I was sitting around the lunch table with my Japanese coworkers and someone asked me about my religion.

At the time, I subscribed to a New Age religion.  Nervously, I told them its name.

The reply?  “I’ve never heard of that before.  Where is it from, Europe?”

My religion wasn’t “from Europe” or anywhere else, really.  It wasn’t anybody’s tradition; it was a modern invention.  As I struggled to answer, I felt the dissonance between our worldviews.  To my Japanese coworkers, religion was as matter-of-fact as nationality.  Having a personal, pet explanation of how the world works, some kind of “ism” that one subscribes to, might be considered enlightened and fashionable in the modern West, but in Japan it makes you sound like you’ve given up on reality and gone off to live in la-la land.

Which, to be honest, I had.

I realized, in that moment, that my religion was something fragile that needed protection inside an accepting mind.  When it was exposed to the harsh light of reality, it was exposed as disconnected from that reality.

And I felt that the next time I was asked about my religion in a Japanese office, I wanted to give a different answer.

It was an opportunity I would be granted.

Some time later, my organization rented out the second floor of an Italian restaurant for the welcome party for our new coworkers.  As was the practice, we drew numbers to see where we’d be sitting.  My tablemates turned out to be my boss’ boss and his boss, two men each old enough to be my father.  They belonged to a  strict and serious generation with impeccable posture.

Just when it looked like things were about to get horribly awkward–they didn’t.  Both men turned out to be humble and fascinating, and we were soon deep in a conversation about Buddhism.  Then my boss’ boss turned to me and asked, “But you’re a Christian, aren’t you?”

I was still a New Ager.  But I knew what he meant.  I was your average white American.  It was safe to say that my family had Christian roots.  In the context of a conversation with a Japanese man of his age, the correct answer to this question was yes.  It wasn’t about my personal opinions.  It was about where Providence had placed me.

Then it struck me.  Looking into the grave but kind face of this man old enough to be my father, I got the feeling he wasn’t the one asking me the question.

I got the feeling things were about to get crazy.

“Yes,” I said.

 

 

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2 comments on “The religion question

  1. This little story brought a slight tear to my eye, though I’ll never admit it elsewhere 😉 I admit, I’ve always been a bit curious about what seems to be a great difficulty in Christian evangelization in certain places in the world – Japan being one of them. Obviously, China oppresses the Church, which helps explain the general difficulty there. But I would have thought there would be more of a presence in other places, and given Japan’s status as an ally to the West it seems that there would be more openness to the Christian religion there. On the other hand, we’re losing it in most of the West, so maybe we’re setting the example.

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    • Rose Marie says:

      Thank you! It was a beautiful little set-up by God, I think!

      As for Christian evangelization in Japan, there was a time (in the 16th century) when it was actually catching on with the nobility. And you have to understand that change in Japan is generally top-down. If the leaders are doing it, the people will follow. That’s just their culture. And right from the time of St. Xavier, the first missionary in Japan, that has been the strategy–talk to the nobility.

      But of course, as soon as the secular people in power heard about this, they considered it a threat, banned Christianity, and martyred a lot of Japanese Christians. (Secular power has a major problem with Christianity, have you ever noticed this? I’m told it’s because we can’t be controlled the way pagans can–I mean with death threats and the like–things that would normally work. Secular power likes to have control, and isn’t necessarily interested in just being fair to everyone to keep the peace–those be Christian values!)

      So I think the “real Japanese people aren’t Christian” narrative is handed down from the top. One way around it could be to encourage critical and divergent thinking, which I think is something that is happening now. But yes, Japanese people are confused about why the West is abandoning its values. That does not help.

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