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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 645AD, 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 European bishop’s response to what he saw was critical of the temple, saying that the people who went there, and few if any were tourists back then, were only expressing paganism and demon worship.
The priest told me he replied, “This morning, I took you to the temples of Mammon and you praised them. Now, I’ve brought you to a place where my people have come for centuries for spiritual reasons and you call it evil!”
That one sentence epitomises 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 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,” he replied.
I asked what he meant and he explained that in response to the new emphasis upon interreligious sharing, increasing numbers of Christians in Japan, including foreign missionaries, are studying Buddhism and engaging in Christianised Zen meditation.
He did not have problems with that per se and nor do I, although I also realise that Zen’s popularity in old Japan was due to its effectiveness at helping samurai become more efficient killing machines.
My friend commented that Japan today is no longer the land of Zen and such. The gospel must be lived and proclaimed in a different Japan from that of the past. In other words, the land of department stores.
That is not just the case in Japan. Increasingly throughout Asia, as already in large parts of the western world, we are entering, or are already in, a world where large parts of the population can be described as post-religious.
Interreligious dialogue today must not look simply to shrines and temples, icons and festivals.
It must find ways to approach a world of social media and selfies, celebrities and profit-making, with a conviction that in some way known but to God, the non-religious world in which so many of us live can “reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men” (Vatican II, Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, #2).
We must learn to approach Mammon’s realm with the conviction that the Holy Spirit is as much at work there as in more easily recognisable religious aspects of humanity.
Otherwise, we may be no different from that European bishop of long ago, seeing only pagan demonism or acquisitive consumerism where people might actually be searching for, and to some extent, finding something to give a sense of purpose to their lives.
We must resist the sin of spiritual snobbery. In fact, the frantic fad followers we might disdain are, perhaps, searching, though unaware and mistaken, with more fervour than some of those engaged in some religious activity out of habit.
If believers confidently accompany them as they search, we may be able to shine the light of the gospel on the reality with which they and we live, convinced that we have something to offer by way of guidance, insight and hope in their search.
In that light, we may learn new things about the Holy Spirit who moves freely through this world in which all is touched by the fact that in the Incarnation it has become God’s home.
How shall we do it? I don’t know. We are only just beginning a real encounter with un-religion and it will take generations of seeking and finding God in it before we can adequately express the mystery.
One thing I do know is that at least attempting to find the Spirit at work in a secularised society is more physically comfortable than sitting in a Zen posture! (UCAN)
 ● Father Bill Grimm MM