Sin and Impurity
I thought I would share a little bit about the type of research I am preparing to do for my Masters in Theology. I will be doing research on sin as impurity, focusing on Mark 7:14-23 and how it can be applied in a Japanese Shinto context. It’s still early days, in fact I am still in the process of delimiting and finalizing my proposal but that is pretty much the just of what I want to write about.
One of the books I am reading is by Sam Lee: The Japanese and Christianity. In his book, Sam researches different reasons as to why Christianity is not widely believed in Japan. It is a very interesting read. One of the chapters that’s of particular interest to me is on the theological factors, especially the way Japanese people understand sin and how different it is to that of Christianity. Here are a few quick examples:
- Original Sin
Christians believe that humanity is sinful from birth, fallen by nature and unable to rescue themselves. Our only salvation is by God’s grace, believing in Christ’s atoning work on the cross to rescue us from sin’s curse. However, this world remains under sin’s cursed effects and will only be completely restored at the second coming of Jesus.
This concept of sin is not heard of in Japanese Shinto. For starters they do not believe in a linear conception of time – time is cyclical and there is no notion of a beginning moment where sin entered or a end moment when sinful man will be destroyed. Additionally, human beings and nature are understood as divine and naturally good, all life stands in solidarity and the concept of individual sin and judgement is a foreign concept.
- Sin as disobedience
Christians believe that sin is disobedience to the laws of a holy God. We are guilty before God when we choose to disobey and this sin brings deserved judgement. For Japanese in Shinto tradition things are understood very differently. Firstly, there is no such thing as a personal God. Shinto believes in kami, which are spiritual beings or concepts that can take different forms. So morality is therefore not determined by a moral law giver. Morality is determined by wa. (Social Harmony) The Japanese are a group oriented people and sin is understood as a disturbance of harmony. Whatever disturbs harmony between people, nature, kami and ancestors is considered sinful. This is why it becomes a problem when one member of the family chooses to become a Christian because that person is seen to disturb wa in the family. Especially felt if the Christian refuses to attend Shinto ceremonies.
- Sin as impurity
One area of great interest to me is the understanding of sin as impurity. Uncleanness or kegare is understood as a kind of negative energy or impurity that attaches itself to a person. This is why ritual cleansing is required: A basin of water outside a Shinto shrine is used by worshippers to cleanse themselves before entering. Omamori (Talismans) Are available at temples, this is carried on one’s person to bring good spiritual energy and dissipate evil energy. Regular Shinto prayers, ceremonies and festivals are conducted to purify people, cleaning them from impurity. Culturally speaking these concepts have come to influence many parts of Japanese life. Onsen (Public Hot Springs) are almost religiously enjoyed and promotes a lifestyle of cleanliness, taking your shoes off before entering your home, a annual spring cleaning day before the start of a new year, Shinto Priests wearing white, salt thrown on a Sumo ring before a match as a purifying agent. etc. etc.
This sounds quite similar to Ancient Near Eastern Jewish culture. Think of Jesus and the Pharisees in Mark 7: Hand washing, purity laws, washing utensils, all for the sake of ritual cleanliness. Jesus responded to the Pharisees by saying it is not what goes in but what comes out of our hearts that make us unclean. I believe that Jesus had something to say to Jews and likewise I believe He has something to say to the Japanese too. Jesus took all our impurities to the cross and by believing on His name He gives us perfect purity, not just outward, but inward purity. Maybe this narrative of sin and salvation can be useful in Japan, I guess I will see once we get there 🙂
But this concept does not only relate to the east. As westerners we also like to think of ourselves as “good” “acceptable” “pure” people. We donate to charity, we do volunteer work, dress up for church in our Sunday best. BUT – It’s not what we do or wear that guarantees a pure heart. In fact, we can never attain the perfect purity that God demands. This is why Jesus came to die on the cross, to cleanse our hearts from all impurity. And to give us His Spirit to sanctify us and to work in us to be a clean people. This work God did out of love, so that He, the God of all pure holiness can be with His people without compromising his justice. Just like a parent cannot allow a muddied child to come into a clean house before being cleansed, God cannot allow any into His pure Heaven without being cleansed by the blood of the lamb.
Psalm 51:7 – Purify me with hyssop and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
I am really excited about what I will be able to research and study, maybe taking a small step towards showing that the Bible speaks to every culture in every time.
Lee SC 2014. The Japanese and Christianity: Why is Christianity Not Widely Believed in Japan? Amsterdam: Foundation University Press.