Only Decentered Deities Bring Harmony and Wholeness to Our World

Photo Credit: Hernan Pinera

The conversation took an unexpected though welcome turn, like all really good dialogues: you never quite know where they will go. I had gone to Nanzan University in Nagoya, Japan to interview Prof. Seung Chul Kim (Dr. Theol.). He is the Director of the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture, and Professor, Faculty of Arts & Letters, at Nanzan University. I asked Prof. Kim why he has dedicated so much of his energies to incorporating science into religious studies. Among various endeavors, he has recently overseen a Templeton grant project that involves incorporating science into religious studies courses of various religions in Japanese universities and high schools.

Drawing from Keiji Nishitani, Pierre Baldi and others, Prof. Kim discussed his implicit reason for his passion of incorporating science into religious studies: the need for decentering, including the self. He wants religion to go back to ground zero by way of negation through scientific scrutiny. The decentering of self is an essential ethical moment. Prof. Kim believes the decentering of humanity and the Christian story that occurred through science and the rise of world religions as a category can helpfully decenter the Christian West from hegemony.[1] He believes we all need such decentering—all countries, cultures, and religions, not simply the Western powers, but also Japan as well as South Korea, his homeland. Past cultural, military and religious conflicts in the Asian context involved a centered West and centered Shogun (and later Emperor), among others.

There was something deeply personal and spiritual about the conversation. Prof. Kim spoke of the need to wash away to start anew. For him, we all need to go back to ground zero, starting with our concepts of deity. Along these lines, we touched briefly on the Christian theme of kenosis—self-emptying or outpouring, which St. Paul reflects upon in Philippians chapter 2: Christ Jesus, who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing. Here is the surrounding context:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:5-11).

No doubt, if time had permitted, we could have explored our interpretations and implications of this New Testament text. Perhaps Prof. Kim would have drawn from Nishitani’s Religion and Nothingness or Baldi’s The Shattered Self.[2] I would have drawn from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. For Bonhoeffer, secular humanity—man come of age—helps us see that only a decentered deity—the suffering, powerless, self-emptying God—can help.[3] In contrast, hegemonic gods are demons in disguise.

What is it about humanity that drives us to conquer? How often is this drive bound up with views of divine sovereignty that approach “the other” in hegemonic terms? Such luminaries as Augustine and Feuerbach claimed that we often worship deities we image—or that image us. The Atomists sought to guard against such abuses with their notion of infinite worlds, and with it the displacement of a divine sovereign. Their teaching filled Alexander the Great with anguish—he had not even mastered one world, and he had to come to terms with the possibility of an infinity of worlds beyond our own.[4]

In my estimation, what is needed to safeguard against such hegemonic ambitions is a decentering of deity—not the rejection of divine sovereignty, but rather the rejection of the notion of God as an oppressive despot. Christ Jesus dies to such despotic notions that involve absolute power, which corrupts. Jesus demonstrates his power in his weakness in lifting up others, not himself. It also entails decentering humanity as bearing God’s image. Such decentering assists humans in moving from singular love of self and one’s tribe to care self-sacrificially for all of life on this planet we share. Only decentered deities and people bring harmony and wholeness to our world.


[1]A future blog post will address this theme and include consideration of the following works: Jason Ānanda Josephson, The Invention of Religion in Japan (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012); Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005); Peter Harrison, The Territories of Science and Religion (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[2]Keiji Nishitani, Religion and Nothingness, with an introduction by Jan Van Bragt, Nanzan Studies in Religion and Culture (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 1983); Pierre Baldi, The Shattered Self: The End of Natural Evolution (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001).

[3]See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, rev. ed. (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1967).

[4]Mary-Jane Rubenstein, Worlds Without End: The Many Lives of the Multiverse (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), page 52.

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