The Invention of Religion in Japan

Against Christianity


The Bible never mentions Christianity. It does not preach Christianity, nor does it encourage us to preach Christianity. Paul did not preach Christianity, nor did any of the other apostles. During centuries when the church was strong and vibrant, she did not preach Christianity either. Christianity, like Judaism and “Yahwism,” is an invention of biblical scholars, theologians, and politicians, and one of its chief effects is to keep Christians and the church in their proper, marginal, place. The Bible speaks of Christians and of the church, but Christianity is gnostic, and the church firmly rejected gnosticism from her earliest days.


These are the provocative opening lines of Against Christianity, a book by pastor and theologian, Dr. Peter Leithart. (A larger chunk of the first chapter can be found here.) The thrust of the book is that the idea that Christianity is merely a system of doctrine we hold in our heads, or a set of stories that comfort us, or a private hobby we indulge in on the weekends in discreet sanctuaries out of the public eye—the sort of “Christianity” that is separate from the rest of life in more or less a modern heresy.

When I came across this slim booklet in high school, it had a profound effect on how I saw the world. I had grown up thinking of myself as a committed Christian, deeply opposed to the increasing secularization I saw in society. Then along comes a book that says the very categories by which I understand my faith are a product of secularism.

Leithart emphasized that the Bible did not teach an ideology, but preached an event and a person. It was not our beliefs which set His followers apart from the world, but a set of practices that He had instituted. The world would not be changed by a system of doctrine, but by a community. And this community was not a weekend club, but a fiercely political assembly, a rival to the various empires and coalitions and world orders proposed throughout history. The Gospel did not just overthrow the worldview of (presumably atheistic) Democrats, it challenged God-fearing, conservative, American evangelicals.

In some ways, most of my spiritual development since then has been struggling with the new categories Leithart introduced. It fit with certain things I had been taught, but often in odd ways.

For example, if by “Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship” you mean that we are defined by our loyalty to and identification with Christ, then that old evangelical commonplace was exactly what Leithart preached. But in another sense, he made that “relationship” seem far more profoundly “religious”—that is, mired in ritual and worship and the sort of devotion and obedience which allows for no competing loyalties.

Ultimately, his book asked me to consider what “Christianity” was, and whether that was even a good term for this thing I was involved in.

Against Religion

If Leithart’s Against Christianity was a paradigm shift, Jason A. Josephson-Storm’s The Invention of Religion in Japan was a far bigger one. Taken by itself, Leithart might almost seem to be saying that Christianity is just a really special religion, one that is so different from all the others that using the usual language is a bad idea. Josephson-Storm exploded the idea of “religion” entirely.

Now don’t take that the wrong way. Josephson-Storm does not disprove the existence of God, or deny that worship is meaningful, or anything like that. It’s not the thing itself that he explodes, but the concept.

“Religion” is a relatively new idea. If you said you were “religious” to a medieval, he would assume you were a monk. If you clarified that by saying you believed in God and went to church and all that business, he might shrug and say “Who doesn’t?” There was no “irreligion” as we think of it, and so specifying that you were “religious” as opposed to “irreligious” was hardly meaningful.

But what about the other “religions” Christians ran into in that era? Well, they didn’t think of them as alternative “religions,” but either placed them in the category of “heresy” or “idolatry.” We have to be careful here, because we can just read the idea “religion I think is false” into idolatry, but that isn’t how they understood it. For medievals, there was simply truth and falsehood—orthodoxy and heresy or superstition—and right worship and wrong worship. Wrong worship was idolatry, and you could accuse an Eastern Orthodox Christian of it as easily as a foreigner with foreign gods.

The closest thing medieval Christians encountered to an alternative Christianity was Islam. It was monotheistic, had a distinct founder, included divine revelation in the form of a holy book, and supported an intellectual world a scholastic would find familiar. But Islam was not regarded as a separate religion, but as a Christian heresy, or as idolatry and superstition, depending on who you asked.

All this is the haphazard explanation of an amateur. Josephson-Storm does a much better job of explaining how, as Christian nations formed in the wake of the Reformation, and as they expanded into new colonial empires, they carved out the category of “religion” as separate from “science” and “superstition” and even “magic.” Of course, The Invention of Religion in Japan does not focus on the European side of that story.

“Religion” in Japan

When Commodore Matthew Perry parked his ships off the coast of Japan in 1853, he forced Japan to begin interacting with the outside—and particularly Western—world. For about two centuries under the Tokugawa shogunate, Japan had shut itself off from the outside world, allowing only very limited interactions with China, Korea, and the Netherlands under very carefully prescribed conditions. For the next twenty years, they would spend their time drafting treaties with new foreign powers and opening themselves up to trade and modernization.

One curious feature of these treaties was that the Westerners were always demanding “the freedom to practice their religion” while in Japan. After the Meiji Restoration, when Japan began trying to craft a modern constitution in imitation of these same Westerners, they kept running into clauses about “freedom of religion.” Whatever it was, Westerners seemed to believe it was very important.

Japan had no word for “religion.” At first they thought it was just another word for Christianity, but that was clearly not the case. The foreigners kept asking the Japanese about their religions. The Japanese thought maybe the word might refer to systems of teaching, but Confucian teachings had little to do with gods or worship, and Westerners seemed focused on that. Japan certainly had gods and worship, but multiple theologies existed to explain any given god, or most popular rituals.

Suffice it to say intellectuals and diplomatic translators in Japan had a rough time trying to define religion. In the process, they may even have invented a few.

The Shinto Secular

As Japan underwent rapid modernization, they worked hard to relate modern science to their ancient beliefs about the world. One particular branch of science was called “kokugaku,” which Josephson-Storm translates “National Science.” It was partly concerned with philology and partly with classic Japanese literature. Experts in kokugaku claimed to peel away the layers of Buddhist theology that had come in from China and uncover the original Japanese gods.

As the state looked for something around which to consolidate national pride, they began to disentangle Buddhist doctrine, Buddhist language, Buddhist-style priests, and more obviously Buddhist rituals from the gods the Japanese had worshipped for centuries. This purified, original national religion became what we call “Shinto.”

“Shinto” literally means “the way of the gods.” It is not a system of doctrine, and there is no single prophet and no holy book associated with it. It is not particularly concerned with what we might think of as moral precepts. It is, first and foremost, a set of rituals for honoring the gods.

Our first impulse might be to call this a religion, but the Japanese state did not see it that way. As they developed their constitution, they determined that there would, indeed, be religious freedom. Buddhists and Christians and other sectarians would be free to keep their own beliefs, and even to worship. But the nation worshiped the gods, and any reasonable person would have no problem in participating. For the Japanese state, Shinto was not a religion. Shinto was secular. Shinto was even consistent with modern science.

Science, Religion, and Superstition

Again, Josephson-Storm has done a much better job of explaining these things than I can. I will probably spend years puzzling out the implications of what he suggests. It is truly unsettling for a mind used to modern categories.

As far as I understand at the moment, here is the idea he proposes: the modern, scientific state needed its citizen to put their faith in a system which could be used to uncover objective reality. This system was called “science.” Science was different than the purely personal and private phenomenon of “religion.” Religion might be indulged in to give life meaning, or to promote morality, but science was simply objective fact. It was the marvelous technique that gave the modern state its power. Everyone had to accept it.

Of course, there were dangerous beliefs as well, things that might have been thought to be religion or science at one time. But because they were clearly wrong, according to science, and clearly dangerous, according to the state, they had to be given some other name. These false beliefs were “superstition.” The state would allow for freedom of religion, but by and large attempted to stamp out superstition.

In other words, religion as a category was invented as part of the project of building modern nation-states. “Religion” was what you were allowed to believe in your head or do on your own time, but the secular—that which was scientifically, objectively true, and that which was backed by the state—was what all reasonable people must agree upon.

If Josephson-Storm is right, and if I have understood him, this has profound implications for what it means to be a Christian in modern society. Leithart’s point is right, but his insight has much more far-reaching implications than he suggests in Against Christianity. The division of some rituals into secular—pledging allegiance, the national anthem—and others as religious—baptism, the Lord’s Supper—is not a reflection of reality. It’s a political act. The division of some beliefs into secular—politics, science—and others as religious—theology, hermeneutics—is also more of a trick being pulled than a true division of things into their proper places.

For a Christian living in the modern world, both these books are worth reading and worth chewing on. At the very least, they ask us to take the categories we use far more seriously than we often do.


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