The Words of the Selle Family

The East/West Encounter -- Christianity in the New Pacific Era

Angelika Selle
June 5-13, 1985

On June 7, 1985, clergy and laity from Japan and the United States met together at the South Gate Tower Hotel in New York for a meeting of the East/West Christian Council. Twenty-six ministers and lay people from Japan and 22 ministers from America's East Coast attended the one-day conference, which was the highlight of a nine-day East/West Seminar that toured major cities of the Northeast. According to one of the main speakers at the conference, Rev. Hajime Sakurai of the Minami-Aoyama Church (United Church of Christ), seventy American ministers and laymen had come to Japan in April 1984 to participate in the first East/West Seminar there. This was the reciprocation; the second half, as it were, of the seminar.

Many of the questions raised throughout the seminar concerned the difference between Eastern and Western Christianity: Do American and Japanese Christians have the same understanding of God? To what degree does the cultural background of each nation influence this perception? Realizing that Christianity has such a small following in Japan (only one percent of the population is Christian), and in spite of the fact that it has been there for a long time, is Christianity the right religion for Japan? How can Christianity and Japan be brought together?

The June 7 one-day conference was sponsored and co-chaired by Dr. Herbert Richardson, professor of religious studies at the University of Toronto and publisher of the Edwin Mellen Press, and by Dr. Frank Flinn, senior consultant of the Sun Myung Moon Institute and general editor of a new series of books entitled "Studies in the Pacific Era."

Dr. Richardson said in his opening address that "we cannot hope to bring about the miracle of East-West unity by our own power alone; rather we must look to the Spirit of God to help unite us." Throughout the ages, said Dr. Richardson, God has called upon his people to leave their homes and go to new lands, to discover that God is still God there and that the people there are also His children.

Dr. Richardson spoke of Paul Tillich, with whom he studied, and who, at the age of fifty, emigrated from Germany to the United States and then had to learn to lecture in English. Tillich once commented, "You know, until I had to speak English I never really was clear about what I thought." Until you see things outside of your own native language and culture, said Dr. Richardson, you don't really perceive them clearly. For example, when someone comes from Japan to America, he not only learns something new about America, but he learns something new about Japan.

Karl Barth, another famous German theologian, once advised the young Richardson, "You should try with all your heart and soul and strength and mind to find what in American religion is most important for the whole world." Dr. Richardson took the famous theologian's advice and became a renowned scholar of American religions. The excerpts from his speech on page 39 outline the points in American Christianity he has found to be the most basic and the most important for the world.

Areas of Philosophical Differences

The second main speaker of the morning, Rev. Hajime Sakurai, reminded the audience of the seminar's purpose, "to deepen the mutual understanding of American and Japanese Christians." In his historical overview Rev. Sakurai discussed the contrast between Eastern and Western religions, Japan's encounter with Christianity, and the meeting of Eastern and W tern Christianity in the new Pacific Age. Rev. Sakurai named three areas in which "deep philosophical differences separate Asian and American religion: First, the technical and economic community; second, the philosophical and conceptual community; and third, the religious and liturgical community." He felt that the third area especially offers a field in which Americans and Asians can learn from each other. "The problems of life after death, of the relationship between the individual and the family -- and the extent to which the introduction of Christianity will change them or give rise to new problems -- on these topics there is a common logical foundation for discussion," he commented.

Three discussion groups held in the afternoon offered the participants the opportunity to get to know each other personally and to share questions, opinions, and common concerns about such things as the threat of communism "here" as well as "there" and the influence of materialistic thinking. One group concluded that, in the words of a spokesman, "that which we as Eastern and Western representatives of

Christianity hold in common is the love ethic of Jesus. This is the distinctive fact found throughout Christianity. The commitment to love our enemies, to love all humanity -- this distinguishes Christian social action work from that of other groups, particularly the communists, and leads to a wholly different paradise than that promised by Marxism."

Even though many questions had to remain unanswered and probably unexpressed, as one discussion leader put it: "...If we succeeded in generating new questions, or old questions put in a new form, I would consider the purpose of our gathering to have been fulfilled."

The final speaker at the conference was Dr. Frank Flinn, whose personal and professional ambition has been to investigate Eastern and Western Christianity in the new Pacific era. He had previously spent many months of study in Japan, and presented an enlightened reflection on the topic, "Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima: Two Days of Infamy and the Day of Hope."

Worshiping with Western Counterparts

During the remaining six days, the Japanese participants visited numerous sites of historical interest in New York City and Washington DC. Most of all they enjoyed meeting with ministers of their own denominations on Sunday morning. Rev. Yasuhiro Matsudaira of the Greek Orthodox Church in Tokyo, for example, was deeply moved when he could worship together with his Western counterparts in a Greek Orthodox Church in New York City.

The nine-day seminar was a small but fruitful expansion of East/West dialogue. Friendships were solidified (mostly with the help of translators), photos were taken, impressions collected, and probably more questions were accumulated in the ministers' minds than before their encounter with the American culture and their fellow ministers. Yet the more questions are asked, the deeper the understanding will become, and perhaps through this process, deeper love for the "other" culture can develop. The next chance the ministers will have to meet each other will be in September 1986. 

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