Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Shintoism 101

Well I am back in California. Started my fourth semester of seminary yesterday as well as kicked off youth group. But before I get back into my normal blogging routine, I still have a few Japan-themed posts I would like to get up. So here goes:

I hate it when people who have no clue what Christianity is about criticize and misunderstand and misrepresent it so seeing how I am a non-Shinto practicing Westerner I hope that this post does not turn out that way and I realize that my observations could be riddled with misunderstandings and therefore my conclusions would be errant. However I do wish to share with you some of my observations about the Shinto religion. I have done my best to verify these observations with material and people who are much more authoritative than I. For a breif overview of Shintoism click here.
The first thing one notices when entering a Shinto shrine complex is the two inch gap between the pavement at the gate of the shrine. This is supposedly to keep the evil spirits out of the shrine area and prevent them from harrassing the kami's and or worshippers. Apparently although these spirits can harass people, they find it difficult to get over those formidabble two inches.
Upon entering one of the first rituals a worshipper participates in is the washing of hands and arms and mouth for the purpose of purification. Once inside you are greeted by two stone lions, one with mouth open (male) supposedly making the "ahh" sound, the first sound heard in the earth and the other with the closed mouth (female) makes the "mmm" sound, the last sound heard on earth. They mingle together in a ying/yang sort of fashion to create spiritual balance for the shrine area. How nice.
after bowing in respect to the lions, worshipers walk up to the shrine which houses the "kami" or local god or spirit. I forget the exact order but the routine consists of tossing a coin into the coffer, clapping and shaking the rope with bells to wake up the kami (a practice which immediately brought I Kings 18:26-29 to mind), then saying a quick prayer for blessing, all of this being punctuated with bows. All together the ritual lasts about 30 seconds to a minute. After that the worshiper goes on his or her merry way.
One of the things that continued to strike me is the similarities between Shintoism and Catholicism. Having spent three years in Italy, visiting many other predominatly Catholic countries around the world, as well as studying Catholicism extensively in my history and theology majors it was easy for me to see some parallels between both these religions.
First off, both religious systems put the emphasis on ritual and tradition. One has to go to a specific place and do a specific thing a specific way in order to recieve blessing. It's not so much about who or what you are worshipping. It's about what you are doing and where you are doing it (usually an ostentatiously decorated building). Even some of these rituals seemed to be similar. In a Shinto shrine you wash yourself with purifying water which magically makes you ready to talk to a god. In a Cathedral a few drops of holy water does the trick. In Shintoism you pray to a pantheon of gods and spirits, each with a special talent or gift to impart. In Catholicism this pantheon is replaced by saints who due to their supposed surplus of merit and holiness are able to impart specific blessings and good luck. Another comparison between these religions is their syncretism. Neither system (especially Shintoism) has problems incorporating the beliefs and practices of other faiths into its organism, especially if it has financial or political benefits. Yet another similarity that stuck out to me is the fact that both religions are almost more of a cultural staple than a faith which demands devotion. If you are Italian you are Catholic. If you are Japanese you are Shinto. As long as you do your mandatory church/shrine visit once a year then you're in the clear. Neither has any real bearing on how you live your day to day life. All of this points to being a being a man-made religion. A system thought up to cater to our fears and hopes and desires, not to worship and honor and glorify and lift up an Eternal Being far greater than ourselves.
This of course contrasts witht the Christianity that reveals itself in the Word of God. The summit of the mountain of Scripture is not ritual and tradition, it is a person, Jesus Christ (John 1:1-4). He is not only the point of life, He is life (John 14:6). We worship Him not for what we can get from Him but for who He is (Isaiah 6:3) and what He has already done for us (Hebrews 13:15). There is no place that we cannot worship Him (Psalm 139) and there are no magic rituals one must perform to earn His blessing (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Well I could go on and on but hopefully I have provided a somewhat objective, although elementary, overview of Shintoism and through that you would be better equipped to witness and pray for those lost in it as well as praise God for the true relationship He has made available to us through His death and resurrection on the cross.


ajlin said...

Thanks for the brief overview of Shintoism! I previously had absolutely no idea what this religion was about.

you said:
" well as kicked off youth group."
when my eyes first crossed this statement, it took me a second to realize you weren't saying that you got kicked out of your youth group! :)

J.R. Freiberg said...

Not this year, by God's grace! Kind of funny that you thought that though cause about this time last year I had to step out because my pastor directly above me went off the charismatic deep end. Long story but in short, God worked it out for His glory and it's all good now.

KosherChristian said...

After living in Japan myself, I found your observations of Shinto right on. What I find remarkable is that when one looks at different forms of ancestor worship- which is what Shinto is - one finds the same basic themes of gods so old, no one knows their names; fear of reprisals if one deviates from the "rituals"; and old hollow rituals that mean nothing to the worshiper. Satan just isn't very creative as he uses the same playbook in all pagan religion.

Doug E. said...

Welcome home, and great post.

I see you are a youth pastor. Me too. God bless,