Sunday, December 09, 2007

Jehovah's Witnesses and Me

(I mentioned this in passing a few weeks ago, but here is the follow up).

A couple years ago Justin wrote a post about his encounters with Jehovah's Witnesses out in Ajimu. Truth be told, I had the same experience back in the days when I lived in Ajimu.

I was spending a lazy Saturday afternoon in my apartment when the doorbell ring, and it turned out to be two Japanese Jehovah's Witnesses handing out "Watch Tower" pamphlets.

This was definitely an "Even in Japan" moment. When you come to Japan you expect to see Buddhist temples, 5 story pagodas, dragon's being killed with magic swords, et cetera. The last thing you expect is to have two Jehovah's Witnesses show up at your door. That's a little too close to home for comfort.
There are lots of Mormon missionaries in Japan, but they're all white bread American boys here for their two year field work. The Jehovah's Witnesses, on the other hand, are home grown genuine Japanese.

Fortunately, they were as surprised to see me as I was to see them. They quickly began stuttering and apologizing for the fact that they didn't speak English. My Japanese at the time was also pretty non-existent, so we didn't communicated much. Eventually they managed to ask me if I went to church. I answered yes (technically a lie at the time) and showed them my Bible, they gave me some literature, and went away.

...I know, I would never have gotten off so easily back home. But in Japan less than 1% of the population is Christian, so I guess they figured I was close enough and left me off the hook.

A few months ago, I had Jehovah's Witnesses show up at my apartment here in Nakatsu. I invited them in.

Truth was, I hadn't had any good religious discussions in a while, and I was beginning to miss those late night dormitory debates at Calvin. Plus I thought it would be a great way to test out my Japanese (one of the major reasons I started reading the Bible in Japanese and attending Japanese church services was that I wanted to build up the vocabulary to talk about religious matters intelligently.) Could I successfully debate the Jehovah's Witnesses in Japanese?
Lastly, I must confess, it was partly because of my ego. As a left over from so many years of Christian schooling, I have a pretty thorough knowledge of the Bible (if I don't say so myself) and lately living in Japan hasn't given me much of an opportunity to show it off. Not many people over here really care.

So, I invited them in...Actually they wouldn't come into my apartment. They must not get a lot of invitations to come in, and traditional Japanese reserve and reluctance to enter someone else's dwelling came over, and they insisted on talking to me in the doorway. It was only as the weather gradually got colder that they began to accept my invitations inside. (I figure I had got to be the only person who was actively arguing with Jehovah's Witnesses to get them to come inside my house).

The first time they came over, I had to begin by confessing my ignorance. "You know," I said, "They always told me to watch out for Jehovah's Witnesses in Sunday School, but to be honest I don't even know what you believe. What is the difference between my Protestantism and Jehovah's Witnesses?"

"We use the same Bible that you do," they answered. "Only we interpret it literally. For example we believe that believers should never go to war. We would never have supported this Iraq war that your Christian president got into."
Well, did they know how to get off on the right foot with me or what? Point one for the Jehovah's Witnesses.

Over the last couple months they've been coming weekly, and we've been going through their brochures. I make a game of it to try and debate them on every single point possible. Even the little points, like whether animals have souls or not, turn out to be big discussions. (I defended my Sunday school lessons that animals do not have souls. Jehovah's Witnesses argued that they did).

The problem is I don't have a clear idea of what I believe these days. So sometimes I challenge them from a doctrinal Protestant view. Sometimes, for example when we talked about the age of the earth, I challenged them from a Darwin Evolutionary view, and sometimes I even resort to defending Catholic doctrine.
For example when they urged me to look at what the Bible truly says instead of what I had been taught to believe in church, I responded with the traditional Catholic argument that since the Bible canon had been decided by the Church fathers, didn't that mean the Church had to be on equal authority with the Bible? (I'm sure my Protestant forefathers were rolling over in their graves on that one).

(At times I ask questions I already knew the answers to just to try and trip them up a little bit. Like when they made a big point of emphasizing that one man should be married to one woman, I brought up all the wives the old testament patriarchs had. And when they said that Jehovah was a kind God because unlike all the heathen gods, Jehovah forbid human sacrifices, I of course brought up the case of Jephtha in Judges).

And then, after a month of debating little points, we got to the divinity of Christ. I had completely forgotten about this, but as soon as we touched upon the point the past forgotten warnings of old Sunday School teachers immediately rushed back into my head. "Oh yeah, so this is why Jehovah's Witnesses are different. I should have remembered that."

I, of course, immediately pointed out to them John 1:1. Which, oddly enough, took them completely off-guard. No doubt Jehovah's Witnesses back in the United States are ready for that one and have a defense all lined up, but in Japan they witness to a non-Christian population, and they had never even considered John 1:1 before. "Um," they said. "That is quite interesting, isn't it? We'll have to check back with some of the Church elders and find someone who can address that verse better than we can. But in the meantime we want you to not just take this one verse out of context, but instead consider the Bible as a whole."

They then responded with a whole bunch of Bible passages when it looks for all the world that Jesus and God the father are two completely separate entities. You know them as well as I do. Jesus being tempted in the desert. Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus crying out to God on the cross.
And of course all I could respond with was, "Um, yeah, we were always told just to ignore that part in Sunday School." Or, "We were told man wasn't meant to understand that part."

Feeling like I was loosing the debate, I decided to get some back up for the next week. I put in "Debating Jehovah's Witnesses" into a Google search engine, and found some sites like this one. I scribbled down a bunch of bible verses on a piece of paper, and the next week when they came over we played, "Trade the Bible Verses".

"Look at this verse here."

"Ah, yes, that's a good point, but look at this verse here."

"Um, that is a bit difficult to explain. But forget about that, look at this verse here."

And so it went. But I do have to admit, they have a much easier time of it than I do. I'm defending a doctrine that goes against the laws of physics and all common sense. And all I have to back me up is a few Bible verses that seem to stand awkwardly on their own. For every Bible verse I find suggesting Jesus and God are one, they seem to have 5 ready in which Jesus appears to be talking to God, or arguing/ pleading with God, or referencing God as a being other than himself. And I do begin to wonder if they are twisting the Bible around to meet their doctrine, or if we Protestants might be more guilty of twisting the Bible around to meet ours.

I suspect that most of us who grew up in Christian homes and schools had an experience with the Divine Trinity that was similar to mine. I remember being in Kindergarten and the teacher was explaining to us that Jesus, God the Father, and the Holy spirit were all one in the same. (The Jehovah's Witnesses believe that the Holy Spirit isn't an actual being, but simply a metaphor for God's power. And to be honest, I always did feel that he was kind of being snuck into the Trinity without a lot of Biblical support).
Anyway, the whole class of Kindergartners immediately protested that it was impossible. You can't be three different things that are one in the same at the same time. So the teacher got out her diagram of the apple, and explained about the core, the middle, and the skin being three different parts of the apple. But of course even as Kindergartners we realized the analogy was incomplete. God wasn't an apple, so what did that really mean in real terms? And finally the teacher said, "Look, I know this is very hard to understand. Adults don't even fully understand it. This is one of those things you just have to accept on faith."

And so we did. Because she was the teacher and we accepted unconditionally anything parents and teachers told us. We might struggle to make sense of it, but if we couldn't work it out in our brains we assumed the fault was in our own mental capacities, not in the doctrine itself.

Of course growing up in the Church you know all the "problem" Bible passages with the Trinity, but you're taught to look at these as theological problems to be overcome, or at most, problems forever outside the understanding of man. You're never taught to just use your common sense about these passages to take you to the obvious conclusion.

As we grow older, we all have our moments of doubt about the truth of Christianity. We wonder why we are so sure the Bible is superior to other religions, or if there is a God at all. But never once do we question the core doctrines of the Church as misguided. We take an all or nothing approach to Christianity, either it is all right or it is all wrong (or at least I do, I'm not sure if I'm still speaking for everyone at this point, but I suspect I am). We know of course that some crazies out there actually believe in the old heresies that were "disproved" hundreds of years ago by Church fathers, but we just shake our heads and wonder how they can be so foolish.

And these old prejudices are so fully ingrained in you until you actually go through the Bible with some of them and realize they have all of common sense arguing on their side, and in fact it is you who are trying to do all the fantastic twists of logic.

But throughout the whole thing, a larger point occurs to me. The absolute absurdity of it.
I mean here we are, putting the Bible under a magnifying glass and throwing verses back and forth at each other because they believe my very salvation is at stake in getting me to interpret certain verses a certain way. And I believe (or at least I should if I was an orthodox Christian) that their salvation is equally at stake unless I can get them to accept my intellectual doctrine about the verses I select. I think South Park satirized this whole thing nicely with their "Final Exam" clip.

Also Richard Dawkins with the "What if you're wrong?" question

As Christians we all find the belief that we are saved by faith and not works comforting for all the obvious reasons (I personally would be screwed if salvation came through works), but it does have its downside. It is the proverbial elephant in the corner of our religion that we all know is there, but try and ignore as much as possible. Every so often it gets brought up at a Bible study, but then swept back under the rug with the usual platitudes, "Well, somethings are just beyond our understanding." "We'll just have to trust that God is doing what is best" (at least in my experience growing up).

At any rate, I have been very happy with the Japanese practice. Being able to debate the divinity of Christ in Japanese is probably a significant accomplishment, even if I did blow the Japanese Proficiency Test.

Link of the Day
Iraq Veterans Against the War: The Winter Soldier Campaign

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