The other day, my friend told me of a news story she saw on TV. A Christian group—she didn’t know what denomination—had gone to the beach and one of its young members got caught in a wave. The group, when they saw this, began to pray. No one went into the water, and instead, a by-stander jumped in to drag the drowning boy to land. He had been under water for over 15 minutes—a hopelessly long time to be without air. But in the end he survived, and the group and his family saw this as a miracle. My friend could not understand how they could have chosen to pray instead of act to help the boy, and then interpret the effects of the actions of the by-stander, the medics, and others as a work of God. Where was their sense of responsibility? What would they think if the boy had drowned in front of their eyes as they stood praying?
Although an ethnography of a different context, Joel Robbins in his monograph Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society (2004) has described how Urapmin converts saw their core ethical activity as Christians to be the renunciation of one’s own will in order to allow oneself to be guided by God’s. This effort contradicted their traditional emphasis on the willfulness of social action, creating moral struggles and ultimately self-assessments as sinners. I wonder if the Christian group by the beach also felt a kind of moral torment, a painful choice between their own will and God’s, between an ethics of responsibility and an obligation to faith.
My work is not on Christianity but on a Shinto-based Japanese NGO. Nevertheless, this question of faith and human action seems relevant. On one level, it is different from the above examples in that the NGO workers’ sense of ethics, if it can be called that, is not about an individual’s effort to cultivate an interiority based on abstract moral ideals, but rather a responsibility to respond to an “other”—to the culturally foreign, to the natural world, to one’s relatives, to suffering others. And so for them, miracles happen in the course of their social actions, such as when suddenly the rains stop at the very moment that they begin an outdoor peace conference.
In fact, the weather, which is arguably the most coincidental and most external to human control, was often cited as an instance of a miracle. In this sense, transcendental will and human will aren’t seen to be in struggle. But neither are they inconsequential to each other. The religious leader and founder of the NGO taught that the will of the universe and nature runs through all life forms in this world, and the right path as humans is to act in accordance to that will. The stories of sudden rains coming or stopping seem to suggest that as long as our actions follow the rules of nature, miracles will ease our way.
But then here, on another level, a question similar to that of the Christians above arises: when is human action deemed to veer away from this will of nature and the universe? Although the NGO workers I studied didn’t refrain from willful action, there were moments when a concept of ethical responsibility and faith in nature did not quite coincide. For example, the use of chemical fertilizers was generally seen to go against the workings of nature, but it was also a fact that they helped increase crop production and thus feed more people in the rural communities around the Asia-Pacific where the NGO works. This was probably why there was a time when the NGO’s projects did use chemicals in their agricultural work although now most if not all activities are based on organic methods. The NGO workers, not all of them religious, don’t really speak in terms of faith or moral torment, but I do detect a struggle to make sense how their actions contribute to a global, if not transcendental, effort to improve people’s lives. Although for them, I would say, practice is not separate from ideals but rather mutually constituted, the conjoined pieces sometimes seem to come undone, creating confusion and a struggle to glue the bits together again in their own ways.
The comparison of Christian concerns with this Shinto-based group might be a comparison of apples and oranges, but could it be a fruitful device to think through the conundrums that I saw the NGO workers face? Or does the Christian focus on the individual, monotheism, inner life, etc, which do not exist or aren’t emphasized in this Shinto-derived group, render it analytically irrelevant? In short, is there import in comparative analyses (I do think so), and if so, how?