There is a fairly constant critique that Shinto is too unformed, too vague, and simply too ambiguous to be considered a viable belief system, much less a religion. It is thought to be more fancy than fact. As William Woodard writes of Sokyo Ono’s slender yet book length discussion of Shinto: “some will no doubt feel the explanations are too simple. For them, it is unfortunate that a more comprehensive work could not have been published.” Here, Ono speaks to the common critique of Shinto from a Western perspective. In this way, Shinto often confuses the Western-only oriented mind, for it is, as they say, more caught than taught.
For many people, a personal path toward realizing knowledge much less faith, contradicts how we were taught to approach religion. This approach has often been very pained with the effort to delineate faith as fact. For example, in Roman Catholicism, trees are felled as reams of paper are spent discussing and delineating every tenet of faith and a practice for it. For example, the average copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church weighs a hefty pound. Its weight is testament to the approach found within, which dictates one cannot know without first being told what to know–and importantly how to know it. Might we call this a pre-determined epistemology, which is pomo-problematic if we are talking about real-Truth and not merely the power to construct what is truth? Hence, the problem and the challenge of Shinto.
Instead of being told what to say, think, do, feel, believe, or know, Shinto simply is. One can know it through their own flesh. This perplexes the Western-mind that often cannot know without first being told what to know. There have, of course, been threads of this impulse within the West, and this speaks to the persistent transgressive challenge of Antinomianism, which I discussed in a previous post, that has longed haunted the West’s preference for controlling an individual’s thoughts, much less practices, based on faith. Likewise, a problematic recurrence of the tendency toward telling faith for the purpose of controlling individuals, especially for nationalistic ideological purposes, can be detected within Institutional Shinto. Yes, this is nothing more or less than the all too familiar human effort to control individuals for social purposes, which is simply not faith in any durable way.
On its own, Shinto is more caught than taught; therefore, there are few books about it. And, the ones that do exist are hardly the hefty tomes produced by other religions, which tend to feel more like legislation than actual professions of faith. Indeed, such incitement to discourse feels more like controlling than knowing faith where Shinto is a living faith.