Today I published a guest article over at Bishop John Shelby Spong's Transformation Now newsletter. The article, called "Japan's 18th-Century Pioneer of Historical Consciousness," introduces Japanese historian Tominaga Nakamoto and how his ideas were used (against his original intent) to justify Buddhist persecution during the Meiji Restoration.

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I open the article with a few comments about the new Martin Scorsese film adaptation of Shusaku Endo's novel Silence before exploring the persecution, not of Christians, but of Buddhists in Japan. Here is a brief excerpt from the full article that will be of special interest to those who are interested in how and why we engage in historical studies of religion:

Tominaga was troubled by the way “historical objects were mechanistically ‘built up’ (kajou) like so many layers of lacquer.” By historical objects, he meant traditions, cultures, and even peoples. He lampooned not only Mahayana Buddhism but also Confucianism and Shinto for depending on “habits alone” to determine the importance of an act. Although he appreciated Zen Buddhism’s resistance to this, he could also observe examples of how Zen, too, had failed in this regard. What really bothered him was each tradition’s attempt at “self extension” through becoming even more absolute than earlier traditions. Too often, he pointed out, a text touted its own perfection: “The profundity! The profundity! There is no sutra that can surpass this one.” “The Buddhas of the Ten Directions eternally meditate on this sutra.”

Yet—and this is the part later persecutors of Buddhism would conveniently ignore when they cherry-picked from his work—he believed most of the sacred writings he read were struggles to resolve problems with an aim toward the Good. They all hit up against the same limitation: human language is too malleable to make absolute statements.

I plan to follow up with several more articles in the future exploring the 19th-century Meiji Restoration in Japan alongside the 16th-century Protestant Reformation in Europe. These two historical periods have some fascinating points of connection, with two different political and religious contexts each grappling with the transition to becoming modern nation-states. The Meiji Restoration will be commemorating 150 years in January 2018, while this upcoming November 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. It's a good moment to be considering both of these movements.

About the image: Tominaga would have lived and died in Osaka shortly before the birth of famous artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), best known for his woodblock series “36 Views of Mount Fuji.” 

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing Director of Westar and Editor of Polebridge Press. Her poetic retelling of the Nag Hammadi text "On the Origin of the World" is forthcoming in Gender Violence, Rape Culture, and Religion (Palgrave McMillan). A US-UK Fulbright Scholar with more than ten years' experience with cross-cultural and interfaith engagement, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.

John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose