Making Space for Transcendence in the Secular East

Yuki Kawauchi recently enjoyed a surprise win at the Boston Marathon. He became the first Japanese man to win in Boston since Toshihiko Seko in 1987, the same year Kawauchi was born. He was not expected to win and part of his success was likely due to his resilience amidst difficult weather conditions. In an interview after he won in shocking fashion he said:

「瀬古さんが最後に優勝した87年に生まれたので運命を感じている。」
“I feel fate [unmei] because I was born in the same year that the previous victor Seko san won.”

In the moment of his greatest personal triumph amidst the most difficult of circumstances, Kawauchi looked up and out for answers to explain his victory. His marathon experience created space for transcendence.

Secularism in the form of nonreligion is growing around the world. In Europe and North America this is notable because there are nonreligious conversions — for individuals and for institutions. People who grew up in religious homes are walking away from their faith in University. Historic churches are being converted into dance clubs and condominiums as cities continually embrace a secular agenda. Many Christians in the West feel the pressures of secularism from without and from within.

However, the most secular countries in the world are not found in the West but rather in the East. China and Japan are listed as one and two for populations who feel least religious. This may seem strange in a place like Japan where some groups have listed the population as being 69% Buddhist, but if you ask anyone on the street, they will likely tell you that religion plays no real importance in their lives. It’s not that Japanese are Atheists. Far from it! Most Japanese believe in spiritual things (like ghosts and spirits) and are quite consistent in participating in religious festivals and rites. However, religion is irrelevant to their daily lives.

Charles Taylor’s vocabulary for secularism gives language to the (non)religious experience in Japan. People in Japan, especially urban Japan, live out a form of “exclusive humanism” (A Secular Age, 19) within an “immanent frame” (542). Taylor’s story of secularism in the West ties secularism closely to individualism, but in the East this is different.

In Japan, exclusive humanism is expressed collectively. It’s one of the things that Westerners love most about Japan, but have no idea how to practice themselves. It’s why in Japan there is so little crime, it’s why things run so efficiently, and it’s why the streets are so clean. In Japan, I am not an individual with an identity who chooses to participate in a community. I am part of a community in which I find my identity. Exclusive humanism in the West looks like extreme individualism. Exclusive humanism in Japan looks like extreme collectivism.

The immanent frame is bolstered in Japan by a modern technological society. Rural communities are rapidly dissipating as urban migration continues. Within the city, the only thing that really matters is that I make it in society. The safest way to do this is to get a company job and serve my company faithfully. In so doing, I will bring honor to my family and the blessing of security. Churches have struggled to grow in Japan in large part because churches do not have businesspeople as members. Businesspeople are not in the church because they have never heard the gospel. They have never heard the gospel (in part) because they work incessantly and any semblance of free time is spent on numbing entertainment to help them get through more work. This is a grim depiction, but I’ve heard even more grim versions described by Japanese friends who actually work in these companies. There is no space for transcendence.

Within the immanent frame people never even think to ask transcendent questions. The old gospel presentation questions like, “If you were to die tonight, where do you believe you would spend eternity?” or “In your personal opinion, what does it take for a person to get to heaven?” are not only under-contextualized — they aren’t even intelligible. Almost no one is lying awake at night wondering, “Is this all there is…” The rhythms of the urban company life allow no space for such things.

But it is not as though God has disappeared in Japan. The rhythms of the company are actually “secular liturgies,” to quote James K.A. Smith. These liturgies express worship in the form of exclusive collective humanism. But worship is not meant to make us look to the face of another for meaning. Worship is meant to make us look up and out, “that [we] should seek God, and perhaps feel [our] way toward him and find him.” There is a crushing secularism that seeks to suffocate God-longings in human hearts, “yet he is actually not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27). God has not gone missing. Reformed missiologist, J.H. Bavinck poses the question we must ask to minister well, “What have you done with God?” (Science of Missions, 253). Where is God in the secular East?

Worship is expressed all day and everyday in the form of secular liturgies. Religious devotion to companies. Walking the labyrinth of department stores. Catechizing students in a cram school to ensure good scores on entrance exams. All for the good of society and to secure a place. There is worship in all of it. Underlying everything is a stressed but persistent cultural nationalism. Imperial Shinto indoctrinated a population to worship the State, “a magnified tribalism, the glorification and deification of the collective Japanese self” (Henrik Kraemer, The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World, 258). The State has been disenchanted, but worship continues directed towards the collective Japanese self. The real religion in Japan is being Japanese.

So how does one preach the gospel in the secular East? It must include making space for transcendence.

A Japanese young man expresses his love for black gospel music. When asked why he loves this music even though he is not a Christian, he answers, “Because when I hear it, I feel something.”
A Japanese secular counselor expresses her newfound interest in religion to a Christian counselor she meets. She explains that many of her conversations with clients are so deep and personal that they even feel spiritual. She wants to know more about Christianity.

Sports, art, travel, counseling, nature, community, and more can create space for transcendence. They beckon us to look up and out, stirring a longing inside of us that cannot be satisfied by anything in this world. The secular liturgies of the immanent frame numb the human heart. But there are God-longings in all of us. “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you” (Augustine, Confessions, 1.1.1).