The folks over at New Oxford Review have been very good to me over the years. So when they asked me to write a response to Jason Morgan's column, Honji Suijaku: Shell Game of the Gods, I was happy to oblige. For those not familiar with NOR, I highly recommend checking them out!
As someone with close connections to things Japanese, I was interested to read Jason M. Morgan’s column “Honji Suijaku: Shell Game of the Gods” (Cultural Counterpoint, Jul.-Aug.). The title alone was intriguing as it contains a term with which I (even after teaching Japanese for 15 years) was unfamiliar. While Morgan better explains the origin and meaning of the term, honji suijaku basically refers to the idea that elements of any given religion can somehow be neatly paired with corresponding elements of other religions. Morgan dismantles this sort of worldview, which can be seen in the ubiquitous “Coexist” bumper stickers.
Morgan begins to unpack the concept of honji suijaku with an explanation of the mash-up of the deities of Shinto (Japan’s native religion) and those of Buddhism (introduced from mainland Asia). I make reference to this sort of “shell game” in my own work of historical fiction, Masaru (based on people and events of the 17th-century Shimabara Rebellion), and briefly mention how the Christian God was initially mistaken by Japanese natives for one of the Buddhist deities. However, Morgan digs far deeper into the particulars and, ultimately, the problematic nature of subscribing to a mix-and-match approach to religion.
Morgan writes, “What’s forbidden in modern America is claiming to hold beliefs that do not translate to other systems, especially when those beliefs are Christian.” This brought to mind a former theology department head at a “Catholic” school where I was long employed. This gentleman would teach his students that all the various religions are essentially different paths leading up the same mountain. (This flawed analogy, of course, fails to acknowledge that not all paths are the same in nature, nor do they all necessarily lead to the same destination.) He enthusiastically promoted teachings regarded as “safe” (donating to local food pantries, fighting climate change, not being racist, etc.). After all, such teachings don’t generally conflict with those of other religions — or even the religion of non-religion, for that matter. By contrast, he often downplayed or outright ignored some of the harder doctrines particular to Catholicism (the real presence, Mary’s perpetual virginity, the necessity of confession, the reality of Hell, etc.). After all, as demonstrated in John’s Gospel and elsewhere, hard teachings drive away crowds. And crowds amount to tuition dollars and money in collection baskets.
I happened to read Morgan’s column shortly after receiving a visit from members of the local Kingdom Hall. On this particular visit, the Jehovah’s Witnesses tried to convince me that the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity is merely a hijacking of some pre-Christian pagan deity possessing three heads. I pointed out to my polite but misguided guests that this tidbit of historical reality in itself offers no evidence discrediting the revealed truth of the Triune God or any other Catholic dogma. Though I think I held my own during the discussion, I wish Dr. Morgan had been with us on my front porch that afternoon as I’m sure the mere mention of honji suijaku would have thrown the Witnesses off their well-rehearsed script.
Honji suijaku is a sword that can be wielded in various manners toward different ends. It can be used by subscribers of one particular religion to try to discredit another. It can also be used to promote the false belief that all religions are equally valid — or, by extension, equally invalid — since, after all, they’re all essentially products of the human imagination. Perhaps most dangerously, it can also be used by Catholics to strike down those parts of the faith that might otherwise make them feel less at home in the modern secular world. Morgan does an excellent job of addressing all these scenarios. Perhaps most importantly, he leaves us with the satisfying conclusion that the Catholic Church is much more than one of many paths up the same mountain because, ultimately, she professes truths to which no other religion can lay claim.