Columnists > Voices

Foreign gods

Tolerance of manmade deities is just a mask for indifference

Issue: "Rick Santorum: Penn Station," April 30, 2005

Every Japanese souvenir shop carries sets of Shichifukujin, the Seven Gods of Good Fortune, but only one of them-Ebisu, a traditional Shinto deity who carries a fishing rod and serves as guardian of fishing, farming, and commerce-is homegrown.

Three are imports from India: Bishamonten, clad in armor and promising protection; Daikokuten, carrying a mallet and a sack and purportedly providing grain in abundance; and Benzaiten, a female deity who plays the lute and specializes in music and oratory. Three more have their origins in China: obese Hoteison, who represents an actual historical Zen monk; aged Fukurokuju, who with his tall forehead and long white beard offers wealth and long life; and the Gandalf-like Jurojin, who carries a staff and also promotes longevity.

The Shichifukujin are more than souvenir trinkets. Hundreds of shrines and temples dedicated to these deities are extremely popular pilgrimage sites throughout Japan. Usually shrines and temples for all seven are conveniently located in one neighborhood so that the pilgrim can catch them all on a single trip. One group in the Tokyo area receives in excess of 100,000 visitors during the first week of January every year.

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The Shichifukujin are said to illustrate the virtues of Japanese religious practice. Representatives of different cultures and religions, the deities are all in the same boat, yet manage to get along quite well, having worked out a harmonious division of labor. Japanese are proud of the open-hearted generosity they have shown by welcoming these foreign gods into their pantheon.

Yet rather than a broad-minded liberality, the Japanese attitude actually reflects a fundamental apathy toward matters religious. Why argue over something so inconsequential as religion? We're talking about visiting a shrine or temple once or twice a year, buying some lucky charms, maybe having a priest bless a new home or new car. It might do some good-or it might not. But it certainly isn't worth getting worked up over.

Secularists in America have essentially the same perspective. They trumpet the virtue of tolerance, when for them it is a simple mask for indifference. It is no great feat to tolerate all sorts of beliefs and behaviors one views as unimportant. That is why they are quick to label devout believers of any religion as extremists and fanatics. Such people blow things all out of proportion. They actually take religion seriously!

When you are dealing with petty lower-case deities, it is easy to welcome one more aboard. The more the merrier. That is why polytheism tends to multiply deities without end. But "He who is the Portion of Jacob is not like these, for He is the Maker of all things . . . the Lord Almighty is His name" (Jeremiah 51:19).

Jehovah doesn't fit in with these quaint and amiable gods. His majesty is overwhelming. His holiness is terrifying. He can't be assimilated. He can't be domesticated. He can't be packaged and put on a shelf for sale.

Japanese syncretists and American secularists are both in for a shock. They have weighed religion in their scale and determined that, in practical terms, it matters little. The biblical term for someone who thinks this way is "fool." "For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil" (2 Corinthians 5:10).

Unfortunately, Christians are sometimes guilty of encouraging this fatal folly with our talk of "accepting Christ" and "asking Jesus into your life."

Well, my life is pretty full, but I'll try to squeeze Him in. I believe I can spare some time on Sunday mornings. And having Jesus around sounds like a good way to enhance my quality of life.

Jesus is not just another icon to add to the desktop to click on when the need arises. Conversion entails a complete change of operating systems.

We mislead people and risk blasphemy when we intentionally put things in a nonthreatening way and downplay the demands of Christ. Whatever Jesus may be, He isn't nonthreatening. He is not a cute little god of good fortune. He is Lord of heaven and earth.

-Russell Board is a missionary in Japan


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