Uncommon God, Common Good

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Posted 8/21/14 at 10:45 AM | Paul Louis Metzger

Thoughts on Diversity in Japan and the United States

The other day I was talking with an American of diverse ethnicity in Japan. We were discussing how homogeneous Japan is and how difficult it would be for Japan to foster diversity similar to the United States. In light of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and a host of other such tragedies, one might wonder if fostering diversity American-style is a good thing. As a culture, we have such a long way to go, as the CNN interview with Russell Simmons makes clear.

In Japan, diversity has often been forced on it from the outside, as in the case of U. S. Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry’s imposing show of naval force, which led Japan to open its ports closed to most of the outside world for two hundred years, and as in the case of General George MacArthur’s post-World War II policies in reforming Japan. In the case of the States, diversity of a kind has sometimes been forced from the inside, as in the case of kidnapping Africans as slave and importing them to America and from a very different angle the Civil War. FULL POST

Posted 8/19/14 at 1:30 PM | Paul Louis Metzger

What Makes Someone a Person and not a Thing?

What makes someone a person and not a thing? Can such differentiation even occur? Do these questions matter, and if so, why?

The differentiation of persons and things bore great significance for Martin Luther King, Jr. for matters of morality. In his estimation, moving from a culture of things to persons would help us confront well such problems as economic exploitation, racism, and militarism (Please listen here to King’s critique of the Vietnam War along such lines).

While I don’t know precisely how King would define person, I do believe seeking to differentiate persons from things proves beneficial for morality, especially in our scientific age and consumer culture in which all too often reality is reduced to material, measurable phenomena that is valued solely for economic benefits.

In my estimation, the following questions bear upon the present discussion and are bound up with seeking to differentiate persons from things. Perhaps you can think of other question. Please feel free to set forth what these questions are in the comment section. FULL POST

Posted 8/19/14 at 1:27 PM | Paul Louis Metzger

Imagine a World without Forgiveness

Recently, during a conversation over dinner in Japan, a Buddhist scholar told me that he believes John Lennon’s song “Imagine” was inspired by Buddhism’s Heart Sutra. Lennon’s song reflects upon a world without heaven, countries, possessions, religion, and war. Perhaps the following lines from The Heart Sutra served as influences to Lennon in writing the song:

Therefore, in the void there are no forms and no feelings, conceptions, impulses and no consciousness: there is no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body or mind; there is no form, sound, smell, taste, touch or idea; no eye elements, until we come to no elements of consciousness; no ignorance and also no ending of ignorance, until we come to no old age and death; and no ending of old age and death. FULL POST

Posted 8/19/14 at 1:22 PM | Paul Louis Metzger

The Holy of Holies

Members of my family and I recently visited the central shrines of Shintoism in Ise in Mie Prefecture in Japan. Our gracious hotel host pointed out what he took to be Israel’s Star of David engraved on stone posts as we traveled to the inner shrine, where he introduced us to our official tour guides. Our host knew not why the Star of David-like symbol was engraved on these posts, or where such engravings came from. In addition to witnessing people cleansing themselves with water as they approached the inner shrine, I saw photos and footage of Shinto priests bearing a box with sacred objects in long procession. It reminded me of the Ark of the Covenant. My tour guide and I discussed reports that perhaps at one point in the distant past Jews and Japanese had been in contact with one another.

Whether or not such possible connections were the result of providence or coincidence, I could not help but think of the Hebrew Scriptures, especially when we came to the inner shrine. As with the outer shrine (which we visited the previous day) where food is prepared for the deity Amaterasu Omikami who is worshiped at the inner shrine, I could not take pictures. The pictures shown in this post reveal the closest I could get to capture images. Only high ranking priests and priestesses and members of the imperial family have access to the inner (Naiku) and outer (Geku) shrines at Ise: FULL POST

Posted 8/19/14 at 1:17 PM | Paul Louis Metzger

The Rabbit Hole Revisited

In a previous post, I wrote about Jesus going down the rabbit hole. He goes further than we would ever go if we were to try and save ourselves and further than we could ever imagine him going. The hole he goes down is the void of humanity’s fallen existence.

Jesus alone could go the way he did as God’s Son—alone. There was no way in the world his first disciples could have pursued him down that hole the night of his passion unto death for our sins. Nor could we have borne his burden with him. But if we will simply trust him, Jesus will bear us on his shoulders as he plunges into the void of our individual lives to fill that void with his loving presence. While I may have doubts from time to time, I have every reason to believe that Jesus will bear me up as he carries me down that hole to the other side to life.

Some friends of mine and I have spoken of the rabbit hole of race relations. I have often experienced vertigo when trying to address power dynamics involving “majority” and “minority” cultures, for lack of better terminology. So often, I don’t realize my privileged status as a white man in the United States and the American church and what that so often entails for minorities. When I do catch a glimpse of it, it can get overwhelming. I feel like I am falling with no end in sight. Just think how minority populations must feel so much of the time! FULL POST

Posted 8/19/14 at 1:13 PM | Paul Louis Metzger

Cosmic Mystery and Purpose

One of the values of the Japanese people I prize most is their sense of wonder in the face of nature. As one who spends most of my days in the Pacific Northwest, I find quite striking people’s love for the beauty and grandeur of the creation. Such love is by no means lacking in the Japanese psyche. Shrines involving nature, gardens—including garden temples, and the art of flower arrangement, among other things, reveal the Japanese preoccupation with the vast mystery of nature. Such fascination was on dramatic display during our recent trip to Kyoto.

During that trip, we also had opportunity to listen to a small group of Japanese intellectuals reflect deeply upon the relation of faith and science. As with Japanese people generally as well as these scholars, this sense of wonder and mystery was not lacking in the thought of Kagawa Toyohiko (1880-1960). Recently, his final work, Cosmic Purpose (1958), was translated into English. Editor Thomas Hastings (one of the scholars present in Kyoto) provides an invaluable introduction. Kagawa was a noted Christian evangelist, activist, and intellectual. Such luminaries as Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell engaged him during their visits to Japan. FULL POST

Posted 8/19/14 at 12:19 PM | Paul Louis Metzger

Uncommon Common People

We all know the politicians and philosophers and powerful warriors shape a society. So, too, do the common people. The hard working farmers, artisans, government employees, school teachers, taxi drivers and train conductors, among others in societies like Japan, make a society run smoothly. I thought about this as we rode from famous historical site to site in ancient capitals by trains and taxis.

Take for example the train conductor who apologized to the passengers for being late for two minutes, or the custodial crew who bowed to those waiting to board the bullet train after working quickly to clean the train’s cars. Without the common people, those who rule the world like the warlords and shoguns of Japan’s medieval past would have no one to carry out their plans or get them or their views from place to place on time. Long after politicians have had their day on stage, those who diligently do the common things well build civilizations for the long haul.

I am amazed by those who do mundane tasks with passion and precision day in and day out. It is a noble thing that the Emperor of Japan honors hard-working and skilled people of all sectors of society on a yearly basis, not simply the cultural elites. It is an even more noble thing that the Emperor of the Universe honors them as well. In this light, it is fitting that the uncommon God became a common man—a carpenter’s son to be exact. Before Jesus ever took the public stage, he likely worked quietly at his father’s trade. I am sure he was faithful in the little things of his earthly father’s trade, just like he was with the eternal work of salvation that his Heavenly Father commissioned him to do. The two went hand in hand. They always do. FULL POST

Posted 8/19/14 at 12:16 PM | Paul Louis Metzger

How Sorry Are We?

Last night, I arrived in Japan with members of my immediate family. My wife, who is a Japanese national, and I lived here years ago. That does not make me an expert of Japanese culture, but I am an interested observer. We have also lived in England as well as the States. I was reminded of something soon after the plane landed in Tokyo. Japanese often display great humility in their greetings and various social formalities. Take, for example, the words “I’m sorry.” In Japanese culture, I have found that, depending on the occasion, Japanese will apologize for their existence, especially when they feel that they are in your way. This stands in stark contrast to English and Americans. The English often appear to apologize for other people’s existence—especially Americans. I have always found it odd how English people often remark in conversation, “Well, it’s good to see you anyway.” While the Japanese may apologize for their existence and the English may at times apologize for your existence, Americans apologize to no one. After all, we’re American! FULL POST

Posted 8/19/14 at 12:10 PM | Paul Louis Metzger

Jesus and the Rabbit Hole

“In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.

The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down a very deep well.” (Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, Wordsworth Editions Ltd., 1993, 2-3)

In Alice in Wonderland, curiosity gets the better of Alice. She pursues a talking rabbit in a waistcoat bearing a watch down a rabbit hole. She has no idea what she is getting herself into, or how far down the rabbit hole goes. I am a lot like Alice: I often have no idea what I am getting myself into when it comes to following Jesus.

In the canonical gospels, Jesus knows what he is getting himself into when he comes to earth to identify with us and bear our sins. He also knows how far down the hell hole goes. Unlike the white rabbit, Jesus does not panic about being late. He is on time. Yet, sometimes I panic when I consider how far Jesus goes. Jesus goes down further than we would ever wish to go, and further than we would ever imagine him going. FULL POST

Posted 7/8/14 at 5:12 PM | Paul Louis Metzger

Morality and Profit

Central to Confucianism is the conflict involving morality and profit. In The Analects, Confucius states, “The gentleman is versed in what is moral. The small man is versed in what is profitable.” (IV.16; D. C. Lau translation, Simon & Brown 2012 edition) Morality—regard for the well-being of others in society—should serve as the guide for one’s various pursuits. Profit through labor is not bad, but the means through which one gains profit and the aim of such profit is of the utmost importance.

What bearing might Confucius’ teaching have today on our market society? As Michael J. Sandel has argued in What Money Can’t Buy? The Moral Limits of Markets, we have moved from having a market economy to being a market society, where everything (or nearly everything) is for sale. Profit all too often dictates what is viewed as valuable. But should we place a price tag on morals? Is there anything money can’t buy? FULL POST

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