Theology of Culture in a Japanese Context – Dr. Atsuyoshi Fujiwara

Had the chance to sit in at a Postgraduate Seminar in which Dr. Fujiwara presented a paper on Theology of Culture in a Japanese Context. He presented elements of his doctoral thesis from the University of Durham regarding the Christian faith and its tension between its transcendent nature and the surrounding culture, specifically within Japanese culture where Christianity has had a difficult time finding adherents. Less than 1% of the population is Christian.

It is no exaggeration to say that two millennia of church history have continually demonstrated the struggle between Christian faith and culture. In an effort to address this struggle, this book explores relevant issues pertinent to the relationship between faith and culture in the particular context of Japan. In this unique work, the context of Japan, well known as a desolate swamp for Christian missions, provides the setting for a re-exploration of issues pertaining to theology of culture. As such, Japan provides both a concrete and challenging context to work out a theology of culture.

Dr. Fujiwara began his paper with a brief sketch of three main encounters with Christianity in Japan (1549 Jesuits, 1859 several Protestant Missions, and postwar 1945). In each instance Christianity was originally received favorably but then rejected out of a growing suspicion with the agenda of Western Imperialism externally and cultural nationalism internally.

Dr. Fujiwara posits a “Twenty-Year Cycle Theory” in which the tensions between International and National periods resolve in either direction. Through several historical cycles Japan has dealt with Western intrusions either positively or negatively, and in so doing, either embracing foreign ideas and concepts (not just religion but other things such as technology and cultural artifacts) or excluding them in favor of nationalistic ideologies. The twenty year cycle is explained in terms of capacity for human memory as well as generational spans. To put it simply, either negative or positive encounters last in the collective memory of a nation for a period of about twenty years.

To explain what is meant by culture, Fujiwara relies on Richard Niebuhr’s seminal work, “Christ & Culture” but with the added critiques of John Howard Yoder and his pupil Stanley Hauerwas, both from an anabaptist theological perspective. Fujiwara’s unique contribution to Niebuhr is actually quite brilliant. He sees Niebuhr’s cultural typologies as favoring a positive view of culture so that Christians are largely called to interact with the “world” optimistically. But Fujiwara balances the optimistic outlook on culture with the claim that there are cultural negatives too in every culture which must be taken into account if we are to develop a healthy, robust, and critical interaction with the world at large. This requires a deeper wisdom in Christian cultural interaction, no longer accepting every cultural artifice uncritically. In fact, this allows room in Niebuhr’s typology for a healthy critique of the negative aspects of culture from a Christian ethical perspective. In other words, the Christian doesn’t simply accept culture wholesale, but finds ways to engage with it both from a critical as well as accepting stance.

From within Japanese culture, Fujiwara explains Christian theology as “dialogue in two directions” — to the West externally in which it would be disastrous to ignore the rich history of the theological tradition, as well as internally in which the contextual and localized theologies are derived from within each culture. In fact, some would posit that all theology is inherently contextual. Fujiwara, ultimately, does not go to that extreme although he recognizes the contextual nature of “doing” theology.

Taking as a reference point the great earthquake that shook Japan in 2011, Fujiwara calls for a Christian engagement in the culture of Japan. For him, this is the kairos, the special time which we should grasp in order to show Christian love for the suffering. In so doing, we are called to participate in God’s work in Japan both with a critical spirit toward those elements of Japanese society that are negative (e.g. Shintoism, Emperor Worship, and Nationalism) and positive.

For Fujiwara, it is imperative that the Christian theologian be able to criticize negative aspects of their own culture from within. This is largely the prophetic voice that calls for reform where wrong is committed rather than simple, optimistic engagement with the culture. How one recognizes “wrong from within” is an intriguing question though, for we all have blindspots when it comes to our own culture. Fujiwara’s answer is to divest oneself from “Nationalist Theologies,” of which a good example can be found in some forms of American Evangelicalism which tends to equate nation with religion.

In summary, I was intrigued with Fujiwara’s presentation from a pastoral perspective. As an Asian pastor I have had several instances in which an Asian Christian has sought my advice on cultural engagement. A vivid example happened a few years ago when a Chinese Christian asked my advice concerning a Buddhist ritual for his deceased father back in Vietnam. As the eldest son, he was required to participate in a Buddhist temple ceremony to honor his father. He was very conflicted.

How does a Christian coming from a “non-Christian” culture engage in that culture? Dr. Fujiwara’s paper offered some possible ways to engage both negatively and positively. Fujiwara’s own example was of a Christian minister in Japan who formally participated in a Shinto ritual. Is that okay? Or not? The question of cultural participation is intriguing, and one that many Christians confront on a daily basis.

I told my Chinese Christian friend to go and honor his father. On the other hand, a dear Japanese Christian friend of mine whose parents remain nominally Buddhist has adamantly told his parents that when they die he will not participate in a Buddhist ceremony, even though he loves and honours them.

So what aspects of your culture do you feel you can participate in without offense to your Christian sensibilities? As a reminder to those from a Western Christian heritage much of what we celebrate in the Christian church (e.g. Christmas of all things!) comes from a pagan cultural heritage too!


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