Shinto: “The Way of the Gods”

By Tom Hamilton

Shinto is not a religious system in the usual sense that we tend to think of. It has no founder, no sacred scriptures (such as the Bible or the Koran), and no organization. From a biblical perspective, it has no system of ethical or moral instruction, no absolute right or wrong, no concept of sin and salvation, and no concern for a life after death. This is why most Shinto believers are also Buddhists; Buddhism supplies the religious answers to these issues which are not part of Shinto thought. Shinto is more of a philosophy of living, a way of doing things and thinking of things that pervades Japanese life. Even in a society that is becoming increasingly modern and agnostic, Shinto still is the dominant influence as subconscious, rather than conscious. This may be compared to present day American values, which used to be based upon a biblical foundation, but are now detached from it. On the conscious level, there is no reason for Americans to embrace the values they believe in, but on the subconscious level it is obviously due to the direct influence of our past Judeo-Christian heritage, ethics and religious values. So also in Japan, Shinto is at the very core of the Japanese person’s attitude toward life, his way of thinking and living.

This is not surprising when one recognizes that Shinto is the native religion of Japan, existing even before the historical events recorded concerning the beginning of Japan. When history tells us of the formation of Japanese society and civilization, Shinto already existed – Japan’s form of the world-wide, natural expression of man’s yearning for God. Shinto means “the way of the kami, ” who are spirits or divine beings which are not really adequately translated as “gods.” Shinto is at heart a crude and rather primitive form of naturalistic polytheism, believing in many kami or spirits who reside within or control various natural elements: the sun, trees, mountains, storms, farm fields, etc. Almost everything in nature, especially anything living and active, possesses a kami. Shinto is the unorganized worship of these spirits; Shinto is a mixed collection of common beliefs which were the Japanese people’s crude attempts to explain the relationship of man’s human nature to the living forces of the natural world in which he lived and upon which his life depended.

Shinto, like every other polytheistic religion, has its complex. myths and legends about the various major kami, their origins, histories, powers, great deeds, etc. These are especially reminiscent of the stories told about the gods of Greek mythology, with which we are more familiar. Like the gods of Greco-Roman society, the kami are really made in the image of man, with their own shortcomings, weaknesses, “sins,” and even deaths. This is the result of a people who yearn for God, but do so in ignorance and deception (Rom. 1:18-23). Shrines were built all over Japan, especially where a particular kami was thought to reside, and the kami’s presence is enshrined there. Pilgrimages are regularly made to shrines by millions of people each year, when prayers are offered and other rituals, particularly water purification, are practiced.

The kami have mysterious creating and harmonizing powers, which places an emphasis on peace and harmony. All of the kami cooperate with each other, and Shinto likewise expresses the desire to peacefully coexist with other world religions. The kami express their will, otherwise referred to as the truthful way, and make it known to devoted, sincere followers who ask for guidance in similarly truthful and sincere prayers. One is able to discern the will of the katni by thoughtful, genuine attempts at understanding “truth” as it relates to a particular situation. The more pure and sincere one is, the more perfectly he can discern the will of the kami and thereby live the most pleasant life possible. When one lives in accordance with the expressed will of the kami, one gains the approval, cooperation, and protection of every kami. Therefore, great emphasis is placed upon “sincerity” and “purity of heart,” which is the sincere attitude of mind which causes one to do his best in a particular situation, and thereby approach the ideal of the kami or a more perfect communion or fellowship with the kami. Man himself is the image and offspring of the kami and realizes his full potential and greatest happiness by being kami-like. Also, since all men are the offspring of kami, each individual is worthy of proper respect. Each must respect the rights of others, and each must live up to his social duties and obligations to others.

Shinto is unconcerned with any concept of life after death and teaches that the world will continue eternally. Man must not be concerned with the past or the future, but only the present. He is a single individual, whose duty is to be a link in the continuing history of man, which passes from one generation to the next. Therefore, rather than being concerned with death, salvation from sin, hell/eternal condemnation, heaven/eternal reward, or any future and other worldly concepts, man should concern himself with his present circumstances and how he can be most happy within such circumstances. Accordingly, Shinto also has no system of true moral values and no basis of authority for determining absolutes of right and wrong. Basically, Shinto’s moral values are situational ethics. “Truth” or “sincerity” is doing your best under the circumstances of a particular situation, and if you fail it is due to a lack of complete knowledge or understanding, and imperfect communion with the kami to have clearly apprehended his will. Sin or evil is not a corruption of the heart or man’s will, but the exercise of poor judgment or the lack of proper awareness. It is merely an impurity, much like dust, which must be washed away at regular intervals. This problem is one which should cause shame, but hardly one in which there is guilt. In regard to all of these basic tenets of Shinto, anyone familiar with Japanese society can recognize the manifestation of these beliefs, whether consciously or subconsciously, in the distinctive attitudes, customs, and lifestyles of the Japanese people.

Obviously, Shinto is commendable (as is almost any religion) for some of its good advice and some of the virtues which it teaches. Many Americans would do well to learn the lessons of responsibility, selflessness, and social obligation which the Japanese have learned so well. But as a system of religion, moral instruction, and the other major aspects that we usually think of when we say “religion,” Shinto has serious weaknesses. Those who believe in Shinto clearly concede this when the vast majority find it necessary to turn to Buddhism for the answers which are lacking in Shinto. Therefore, in regard to Japanese religious beliefs, one must not only be prepared to confront Shinto, but Buddhist doctrine as well.

In dealing with the problems of Shinto itself, it should be very helpful for us to recognize that the form of naturalistic polytheism which Shinto exhibits is little different from the same form of paganism which Paul and the other early Christians confronted throughout the Mediterranean world in the first century. The myths and legends concerning the gods are similar. The multitude of gods behind every natural force or object is the same. The lack of any systematic, organized paganism is parallel; the Greek loosely held common beliefs, built temples to various gods from place to place, with each city and household having their patron god or goddess. The absence of any founder, sacred scriptures, or true moral instruction is identical. All of these striking parallels should not surprise us; such are simply the natural result of what happens when man tries to satisfy his common, world-wide urge to seek after God when he is ignorant of the true God and self-deceived. And one could take no better approach to discrediting this philosophy of life than that which Paul used, as represented in Acts 17:16-34.

1. There is one true God (Acts 17:24). “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth.” There is one God who created everything, and through creation he displays his eternal power and divine nature (Rom. 1:18-20).

2. This God is all-sufficient (Acts 17:24-25). “. . . does not dwell in temples made with hands, neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all life and breath and all things. ” This God possesses no such limitations as man does. God does not need man; man needs God (Isa. 66:1-2). Everything else is secondary and subordinate to God (Eph. 1:15-23).

3. This God is all powerful and authoritative (Acts 17:26-27). . and He made from one, every nation of mankind . that they should seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us. ” This God created man for a purpose, which man had better fulfill. Man must respect the authority of God and submit to his will which has been clearly revealed to us (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

4. This God is all divine (Acts 17:29)- “Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. ” This God is not subject to the whims, interpretations, wisdom, or imperfect reasoning of man. He is not the product of man’s imagination. God is not in the image of man, but man is to be in the image of God (Col. 3:1-11; 2 Pet. 1:2-11).

5. This God is all righteous (Acts 17:30-31). “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to man that all everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness.” This God is perfectly moral and righteous, and he expects such of his offspring. There is a judgment day appointed; there is a future to be concerned about; there is a need for salvation from sin; there is an absolute basis upon which to discern right and wrong, a basis upon which we will be judged (Acts 10:42-43; Rom. 3:21-28; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; Jn. 12:44-50).

The way of the gods is vain, deceptive, decadent, powerless, and immoral (Rom. 1:18-32). The gods are mute, deaf, and impotent (Isa. 44:920). Shinto truly does mean “the way of the gods, ” but sadly, what the Japanese and others who are being touched by their culture need to know is “The Way of God” which is true and living (Jn. 14:6).

Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 10, pp. 314-316
May 17, 1990