Interreligious dialogue with Mammon?

Shortly after my ordination and assignment to Japan, an elderly Japanese priest told me about an experience he had as a young man sometime before World War II.

A European bishop was visiting Tokyo, and the then-young priest was assigned to be his tour guide for a day.

In the morning, they went to the Ginza shopping district and spent time exploring department stores.

The bishop was impressed at how up-to-date everything seemed and praised Japan for its embrace of Western modernity.

In the afternoon, they visited Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple, Senso-ji, which dates back to 645 A.D., though the present buildings are replacements of those that burned down in World War II bombing raids that destroyed most of Tokyo.

The temple, more commonly known as Asakusa Kannon, is one of the most-visited spiritual sites in the world, with some 30 million people coming each year.

Most of them are probably tourists, and when I take visitors there, I get the impression that most of those tourists are Chinese.

The bishop’s response to what he saw was critical of the temple, its devotees (few, if any, tourists back then) and what went on there, saying it was all paganism and demon worship.

The priest replied, “This morning, I took you to the temples of Mammon, and you praised them. Now, I’ve taken you to a place where my people have come for centuries for spiritual reasons, and you call it evil!”

That one sentence epitomizes why the church can be, must be and is engaged in exploring the meaning of religious pluralism for the mission of Christianity today.

Many years later, when I was reassigned to Japan after more than a decade away, I asked a friend, a Japanese layman who had studied theology, if he had any advice for me now that I was back in Japan.

“Yeah. Don’t get into religious archeology.”

I asked what he meant, and he explained that in response to the new emphasis on interreligious sharing, increasing numbers of Christians in Japan, including foreign missionaries, study Buddhism and engage in Christianized Zen meditation. Continue reading

  • Father William Grimm, MM, is publisher of and is based in Tokyo.

News category: Opinion.

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