Conscience and Personality. A New Understanding of Conscience And Its Inculturation In Japanese Moral Theology

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2005 »Volume 42 2005 Number 3 »Conscience And Personality A New Understanding Of Conscience And Its Inculturation In Japanese Moral Theology

Osama Takeuchi
(Chiba: Kyoyusha, 2003), xxi + 220 pages.


Takeuchi, a Japanese Jesuit and assistant Professor of moral theology at Sophia University in Tokyo, offers us an initially dense but ultimately fruitful discussion of his subject in four parts. Two of these form the obligatory background for a standard presentation: Chapter One discusses the traditional understanding of conscience—its basic understanding, the Scriptural references, and its development in Thomas Aquinas and Scholasticism. Chapter Three turns to the post-Vatican approach to conscience and focuses on the contribution of Joseph Fuchs to its renewal. After referring to the basic premises for a renewed moral theology in Vatican II, Takeuchi focuses on three aspects which he regards as the contribution of the German moralist to the discussion, namely, freedom as the basis of self-cultivation, Fuchs’ moral vision of a fundamentally human morality, and discernment as the formation of conscience. Although these two chapters take professionals over familiar ground, they are competently and succinctly done for a nonprofessional readership. It also serves notice, if such be needed, that Takeuchi fully grasps the core of the Western Christian tradition on the subject of conscience as he embarks on an alternative or parallel account.

What will interest professional moralists are the two truly novel chapters on the inculturation of the concept of conscience in Japanese moral theology which serve as counterpoints to the traditional material. Thus, Chapter Two discusses the socio-ethical view of the Japanese conscience (ryoshin), first in Confucianism in China (ch’eng) and as developed in Japan (makoto). To illustrate, whereas the Chinese philosopher Mencius argued for the original goodness of human nature, and developed this through the doctrine of four beginnings, the Japanese ryoshin is more specifically about the sincerity of a humane and righteous heart, with nuances of love and loyalty. True to expectation, Chapter Four draws conclusions as to ryoshin’s context, relationality, chief characteristics, and implications for evangelization and the life of the Church in Japan.

For sometime now the concern for inculturation has been a significant development in theology in general; it has been less so in the area of moral theology. It still continues to puzzle why Ecclesia in Asia, after endorsing this emphasis on the Church in general, and its indispensability in Asia in particular, has inexplicably left out moral theology from the list of disciplines where it could be responsibly developed, unless this was truly a case of studied indifference (and it is to be devoutly wished for, not by explicit intention). In any case, this oversight, if it be such, is reason enough to make this book stand out all the more as a significant contribution to moral inculturation, the first that this reviewer is aware of in the Japanese area, at least in English.

Its importance, however, goes beyond the circumstantial to the substantial, even if rooted once again in a much larger context. Consider that much of the inculturation discussion so far has been limited to theoretical principles, which have themselves been limited by the concrete material of inculturated instances against which the theoretical proposals can be assessed. Such "discourse about" inculturation as opposed to the "actual execution" of the same is the situation in general with the speculative or systematic disciplines, at least in Asia, a situation not to be wondered about, given the ambiguities of the dialogue partners in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious context, not to speak of the uncertain definition of levels of possible interaction. Pastoral theology, by its nature, provides much greater latitude for inculturation, and despite the usual caveats, has been generally left to its devices, with rather interesting results. Sacramental and liturgical theology offer more illustrations, quantitatively and qualitatively, of the vitality of inculturation as an intellectual movement, although there are official signs of late that central authority seems to now regret its past indulgence. Our author does not talk about the theory of inculturation and indeed says little about it as a theoretical justification of his project; he is entirely focused on the actual realization of a specific instance of inculturation. This is not without its theoretical significance, as in so doing he has provided us with a clear test case for measuring theory and method against a real product.

The significance of this book goes beyond that in yet another sense. One would expect that moral theology, being at the cutting edge of the practical theologies, would have grown at a similar, if not a more accelerated pace. Far beyond the Asian context there is admittedly little hope that it will move quicker with modern, postmodern, and post-Christian culture as interlocutors. That is to say, if inculturation looks towards contextualization, particularly of moral praxis, it will gain little ground in the present climate of theology today. Without entering into the merits of that development, there are other ways for inculturation to pursue its agenda, such as through indigenization, a species of localized systematization, through the recovery of more autochthonous understandings of key moral concepts or the identification of footholds for local appropriation of the Christian theological tradition. By giving us a clear presentation of the Japanese conscience and its potential Christian assimilation, Takeuchi contributes an atypical Asian piece to the mosaic of the Catholic understanding of Christian conscience which has heretofore been filled, almost exclusively, with Western pieces. The contrast could not have been more glaring. Put in other terms, Takeuchi is not merely an essentially Western theologian doing moral theology with a quaint if endearing Oriental accent, he is doing Japanese moral theology in much the same way a Western moral theologian is expected to do moral theology in his own local context. Takeuchi is theologizing on the same subject, without mimicking the Western theologian, but in an inimitably Japanese fashion. And that, in essence, is what indigenous theologizing is all about.

Because indigenous theology is about a particularly localized theology, this book will evidently be of greatest benefit to Chinese and Japanese moralists, as it is they who can and will best appreciate the intricacies of the discussion and the fine distinctions being made within and among key concepts. It will surely help with the academic analysis of conscience on its own terms from within Japanese culture, independently of and without reference to the Western tradition. In that sense, the expository chapters of the Western theological discussion serve as convenient reference points, reminding us of an intractable problem that authors working on inculturation constantly encounter, which is that of engaging multiple audiences at the same time. On one hand, the theologian of culture is writing for his/her own people, the majority of whom English is not a readily available medium; on the other hand, one is writing for the benefit of professional peers for whom the Japanese idiom is inaccessible. Like other literature of this genre, this book suffers from a kind of cultural schizophrenia, which should make non-Japanese moralists more appreciative of the efforts Takeuchi has undertaken to provide English readers this window into Japanese moral theology on the one hand, and justifiably cautious as to its reception among Japanese readers themselves who must by right remain its primary critics.

The latter remark has in view nonprofessional audiences for whom this book may not prove too readable; in fact, a Japanese priest friend invited to be a reader and sounding board, confessed difficulty not only with the concepts as unfamiliar, but also with the substance of certain arguments. This is not surprising and is in fact to be expected, first because of the unfamiliarity of the laity with the professional discussion, and second because any culture for that matter presents more than one specific and definitive view of such a basic reality as conscience. The book, this reviewer is suggesting, can best test its findings against the perceptions of the very people they have been drawn from and whom they must ultimately serve. The conventional wisdom among practitioners is that inculturation must be as much a product of professional theologians as it is of ordinary laity. I have no doubt that professional moralists will welcome this contribution; how it will be received by lay readers is less predictable.

With all that said, we can perhaps allow the author to give us a flavor of his contribution by taking a closer look at Chapter 4 (Reexamination of Ryoshin in Japan). Traditional ryoshin, Takeuchi explains, was socio-ethical; it had a communitarian reference, an element to be earnestly recovered in view of the collapse of community forms in modern Japanese society. Not only doesryoshin have potentials for evangelization therewith; its own human character establishes a common base with Western morality. Takeuchi elaborates on how he believes its Christian character can then be better appreciated by his fellow Japanese, or how the Word can be embodied through a consideration of ryoshin.

First, ryoshin is an instance of Sitz im Leben. It is the compass by which humans can have an authentically human existence, because ryoshin treasures life. Ryoshin too helps us to understand life in dialogue, through its three functions: it acts as a norm of judgment of good and evil, it is an experience of remorse after a wrong act, and it has a religious dimension. One must try to be sincere to ryoshin, which is to say, among other things, to be pure and innocent. In a line of argument that revisionist and personalist accounts of conscience increasingly underline in current Western theology, Takeuchi says that in a very real senseryoshin is in fact the person itself, as ryoshin is born of one’s experience of being a person. Integrity is nothing more than knowing truth, loving beauty, willing goodness. Love is the ideal embodiment of ryoshin.

Second, Takeuchi continues, ryoshin is a relationship realized and experienced as transcendence and embodiment. Transcendence is an internal reality, and embodiment of an external reality, of ryoshin; the former constitutes its dignity, the latter its communality. Where Western transcendence tends to go beyond the personal in an ascending sense, Eastern transcendence tends to the horizontal and submerging sense. The "knowing with" of conscience lies in its anthropological transcendence, or relationality, a relationship experienced existentially, in brief as embodied. Body is indispensable to holistic human maturity; it is part of knowledge in the biblical sense; it is involved in all our experiences, such as remorse. Due to its orientation to community, the better formed the ryoshin, the higher its sense of the common good. Given the affinity of concepts, Takeuchi suggests, the Pauline image of the Church as the Body of Christ should be readily intelligible even to non-Christians in Japan. Community members understand that they are related to the center, that these relationships constitute the (moral) "order," and that guilt comes from violation or disregard of that communal order. All humans are to realize their worth in relationship to and with others; in religious terms, they are to unify love of God and love of neighbor. Takeuchi explicitly warns foreigners against reading the Japanese notions of "anthropological transcendence" as well as "religious transcendence" in reflexively Western terms.

Third, ryoshin and Christianity can be understood through three aspects of makoto, a term which, the author explains, denotes more than a concept or value, as it is the process of cultivating the whole self. One realizes oneself, and becomes wise, by practicing makoto. The closest Christian notion that the author finds in order to render makoto more intelligible is that of holiness. The individual moral and/or ethical makoto aims to be just and/or honest, and the goal is the good. The relational or aestheticmakoto aims at living gracefully/readily and aims at beauty. The "religious" makoto involves purification and aims at participating in the transcendent. Stated otherwise, makoto as sincerity is embodied by simplicity, conviction, and human empathy. Makoto as reality embodies the Truth or the Way, in the world of the real, or the world of socio-ethical relationships. Makoto as integrity is Transcendence or life itself.

One follows Takeuchi trustingly as he moves along the theological terrain. All this, he says, can connect with the Johannine prologue where transcendence and embodiment become one in Jesus. Jesus becomes the embodiment of God’s life and sincerity, just as those who reveal the Way in Asian history (for example, Confucius, Mencius, Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu) are the embodiment of the Way. Jesus embodied sincerity by fulfilling his word; he embodied reality by living out his life with others in the world; he revealed who God is through the whole of his life. He taught his disciples the same integrity and love through dialogue.

On the critical side Takeuchi points to two questions about makoto. One is about its universality, given that the "inside" (uchi) of the home is distinguished from the "outside" (soto) or other social realms such as company and school; makoto restricted to uchiis not universal. The second refers to its objectivity, given the Japanese view that the offer of makoto takes place between the partners; the inclusion of a third party as objective condition of the covenant, such as in Christ-ianity, is foreign to Japanesemakoto.

Among the merits of the book as text, at least three can be underlined. Conscious that his audience is both primarily his own people and secondarily other observers, Takeuchi announces at every step what he is about to do. The foreign reader is assisted moreover by Takeuchi’s succinct explanations of terms and the historical contextualization of thinkers, texts, and ideas, plus a very helpful glossary at the end. Second, the author distinguishes philosophy and theology quite sharply, and justifiably so, as inculturation at this point has to do more with philosophy than with theology, at least in the classical mode. Finally the author connects explicitly with the tradition, in order to emphasize that inculturation does not in principle nor uncritically reject it in an ethnocentric way, and in order to highlight the convergences and divergences between the traditional and the emergent account. To this reviewer, an alternative procedure would have been to make the direct and simple affirmation that ryoshin is the Japanese equivalent of that human reality which the West chose to define as conscience, and from there proceed to explain how the Western account differs from it. But that is a preference of presentation, and Takeuchi’s succeeds just as well. As this work shows, it is quite possible for Asians to define themselves authentically not so much against the standards and expectations of the West as against the common standards of humanity as such. Which is why conscience is the best starting point for any attempt at moral inculturation as it goes to the very heart of morality.

Well beyond this book, of course, one can anticipate questions about the weaknesses of the virtue approach, represented by the stream of conscience rather than that of law, even in the West. What weaknesses would Orientals find in their moral approach, heavily and almost exclusively marked as it is by the tradition of conscience? The need for a self-critical attitude is evident here and this reviewer is confident that they (Orientals) will almost certainly be addressed by the author in his future researches. Evidence of that can be found in his discreet divergence from Mencius’ position that human beings are good by nature, as this makes the explanation of moral error and even moral evil problematic. He poses other questions: how does one critically determinemakoto for oneself and for others? By what tests or criteria does one come to judgment on such issues? How does this approach interface with the Western emphasis on justice, especially in social matters?

We, the Asian theological community, are indebted to Takeuchi for allowing it to glimpse its theological and moral connectedness/difference with the Japanese and other Asians as well. We hope that he will not be the last to help us define the configuration of that elusive characteristic we call "Oriental," dismissed so casually in the past by less discerning minds. This text is to be recommended to kindred spirits of inculturation in general, but more specially to those in the same field, as it is a truly remarkable contribution to cultural theology. It certainly provides a model of what can be done in inculturation and how to do so responsibly and well. 


  • Dionisio Miranda, S.V.D