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.




We’re all the same, except for our glaring differences

One of the things that appealed to me about the New Age was the idea that all the major world religions teach the same thing, and therefore they are all correct. After all, I’d lived in Japan and knew how sincere, humble and obedient the people here were. Surely no informed Westerner would claim superior knowledge over these people.

There were a few things that were difficult to reconcile, though. One was the East’s belief in reincarnation versus the West’s belief in Heaven and Hell. No matter how you looked at it, those were two different belief systems. New Age authors in the business of comparing the religions would conclude that “Heaven and Hell are a metaphysical impossibility” and “Christianity is mistaken on this one point, but in general the teachings agree.”

Because, you know, when you’re trying to prove that all the world’s religions teach the same thing, it’s okay to just claim that Christianity is wrong.  That won’t totally disprove your entire hypothesis.

I would slowly discover this subtle discrimination against Christianity to be a theme.  A suspicious theme.  It was beginning to look more and more like the de facto battle lines were actually “Christianity against the rest of the world.”  Interestingly, that was exactly where Christianity would have drawn them.

What sealed the deal for me, though, was a trip to a certain Buddhist temple.  Inside this temple, giant statues of the twelve gods of the Chinese zodiac stood in a ring.  When I entered, one of the attendants asked me which year I was born in.  I told her, and she led me around the ring to the statue which she told me was ‘the god of people born in the year of the rat.’  Then she stood there expectantly, perhaps waiting to see that I had understood her Japanese by watching whether I would pray to the thing.

I gazed up at the eight-foot, lacquered mahogany statue of a snarling half-man, half-beast. I stared at the long, pointed teeth visible through its open grimace, noted the horns on its head. She wanted me to pray to this thing?

The leader of the New Age cult I was then a member of would say that this, like all gods, was just a face of the one true God.  Young Buddhist women who were born in the year of the rat apparently prayed to it without a second thought.

On the other hand, there was something comically mismatched in the idea of addressing this thing as a loving parent. If design is a language, then every word of this thing was screaming that it was a depiction of a demon.  The only emotion it inspired in me was revulsion.

The question was, did I really believe that this was a depiction of one facet of God?  My beliefs said that I had to.  If I didn’t, then I was admitting that the world’s religions weren’t a unity, and the entire foundation of my religion would fall apart.  I stared at the statue for a long time, waiting for something to give.  It was an intellectual stalemate.

Finally something settled inside of me.  I don’t have anything to say to that thing, I thought, and walked away.

When I finally decided to leave the cult, I politely thanked the leader for everything and told her that my journey had led me to the Catholic Church. She responded quite civilly that she thought this might happen, but was surprised that I’d chosen the Catholic Church–she had thought I might go for Japanese Buddhism. I replied politely again, explaining my reasons for choosing Catholicism, to which she responded with some rather desperate reasons as to why I ought to avoid the Church. Now what difference in the world could it have made to her at that point?

None, I suppose, unless she was dedicated to spreading the idea that any religion is okay–except for Christianity.