We’re proud to present a guest post today by blogger and Yale Divinity School student James, who has written series of articles for us in past about Planetarian and Steins;gate. Note: this essay is based solely on the anime adaptation of Welcome to the N.H.K. rather than the light novel or manga, whose stories differ in some respects. All quoted dialogue is from ADV’s English dub.
Humans bristle when they suspect someone is being condescending toward them. Either pride impels them to reject a condescending person’s claim to superiority, or their own sense of inferiority drives them to isolate themselves, anything to escape the critical gaze of others.
Sato, the protagonist of Welcome to the N.H.K., falls into the second category. Whenever he goes out in public he is convinced everyone is looking down on him. As a result, at the start of the series he is a hikikomori, a college drop-out with no job who lives on his parents’ money and has barely left his apartment over the past four years.
However, he meets a girl named Misaki who is going door-to-door with her aunt passing out religious tracts on the growing social epidemic of hikikomori. She later summons him to a local park and announces her intention to “rescue” him. Her motivation? “I’m just a sweet little girl who wants to help you out.”
Coming from a perfect stranger, this would be odd even if Sato’s only flaws were his social ineptitude and crippling paranoia. But given that after only a few episodes the audience—and, to some extent, Misaki—can see he’s a porn-addled pervert, her persistence becomes downright uncanny: “It’s all right. I still just want to help you get better, you know?” Sato is understandably dumbfounded: “What’s up with that girl?! What the hell’s going on?!” On further reflection he wonders, “What if she’s like some guardian angel sent here to rescue me or something?”
Sato’s turn to a divine explanation for Misaki’s inexplicable behavior might seem fantastical to some, but it is actually quite natural. While the condescension humans have for one another is contemptuous, there is also such a thing as divine condescension, an attitude of mercy and grace that is devoid of cruelty or self-interest. The Bible teaches that God shows humanity such divine condescension, for example in Psalm 113:6–7, “He stoops to look down on heaven and on earth. He lifts the poor from the dust and the needy from the garbage dump.” Small wonder, then, that Sato begins to see Misaki as an angelic figure and accepts her help.
But this image of Misaki soon begins to crack when she suggests he deal with the insecurity born of his own personal failings by looking down on others—i.e., by practicing the human condescension Sato suspects everyone of showing toward him: “If you find it too difficult to elevate yourself, you just have to put everyone else below you. Just look down on them. That way, even if they do think you’re stupid, at least you’re even.” Misaki then blithely admits she does this herself when dealing with Sato, which naturally angers him. She tries to placate him, but her facade has already fractured.
Eventually Sato begins to question Misaki’s motives: “I don’t know who she is! I don’t know why she’s helping me or if she’s helping me! I’m completely in the dark.” He even wonders if she intends to keep him a hikikomori forever.
Sato’s suspicions are later shown to be justified when he is on the verge of committing suicide and she attempts to talk him down:
Sato, you’re not a rock on the side of the road! You’re a human being! That’s right! You’re a flesh-and-blood failure of a human being! You’re special! You’re the only one! More useless and an even bigger waste of flesh than I am! A hikikomori like you is even lower than a stray dog! I need you, Sato! I can’t live without you! So please…Sato…you just can’t die now, you can’t!
In short, Misaki’s apparent display of divine condescension toward Sato is really a display of human, all too human condescension. Far from rescuing him, her purpose is to enable his hikikomori lifestyle so she can continue to feel better by comparison. All human relationships are defined by this sort of callous self-justification, or so an old classmate of Sato’s named Megumi subsequently tells him:
I know you’re not stupid, Sato. By now I’m sure you’ve realized that this world is looking down on you. That they think you’re scum. Don’t you understand, Sato? They’re using you for their own selfish needs. Society wants hikikomori like you to exist. It makes them secure. It gives them someone to look down on. Even if their lives are falling apart they can always say, “At least I’m better off than that guy.” Don’t you see? This world’s dog-eat-dog! It’s a zero-sum game! If you don’t look down on others then they’re going to look down on you!
As to how Sato and Misaki’s relationship ends up, that is not our concern here. Rather let us ask, what are we to make of Sato’s search for grace? I would say his instinct in associating disinterested mercy with the divine is sound. Still, he was mistaken in trying to find such mercy in a mere human, for as Megumi rightly observes, people always seek to justify themselves. So too in Luke 18:11 the Pharisee prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”
The question thus becomes, is there any divinity in which we can find merciful condescension? Misaki, for her part, is convinced that “if there’s a God, then he’s evil for sure” because so much of life is spent in suffering: “Logically there’s no way a God who created such a horrible, unfair world can be a good person. So God is evil without any doubt. It’s the obvious truth.”
This objection to God is prevalent in anime (and, of course, among religious skeptics in general). I will not address the charge here, as others wiser than I have already responded. Nevertheless, I will say this: humans desire above all else to be known and loved despite their repulsiveness, and more than that, to become truly better people, to overcome their sins and failings. In these respects Sato is representative and gives us an opportunity to look hard at ourselves, if we can stand it. Welcome to the N.H.K. illustrates that we cannot hope to find such mercy and aid in mere humans, whether friends or lovers, but it stumbles in suggesting that God is, if anything, the problem rather than the solution.
Misaki insists that God made the world full of suffering as a divine conspiracy of sorts, but it is the first humans, Adam and Eve, who chose to sin and thereby brought suffering upon themselves and all who came after. Similarly, Sato’s old senpai Hitomi claims “there’s no such thing as a bad person,” but in reality the world is full of nothing but bad people. In our sorry state we grasp hungrily for understanding and absolution, but the only one who says to us, “I know you completely, yet I love you” is none other than Jesus the Christ, God in the flesh. He does not simply love us as we are and leave it at that, though – he cancels all our sins, past and future, and changes who we are, if we will trust, believe in, and follow him.
Thus, Christians believe divine condescension is real, that such condescension can be found in the person of Christ, and that in following him we are not only forgiven but also perfected. As it is written in Philippians 2:6–8, Christ,
Being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!
Even after confessing faith in Christ our lives will be riddled with regressions, just as Sato resolves to leave behind his hikikomori ways multiple times and just as many times falls back into them. But God, despite our many failures, will grant us forgiveness if we turn again toward him and seek it, as it is written in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” In this truly divine condescension toward our persistent weakness lies the perfect sweetness, rest, and comfort we are all too liable to look for in fallen humans.
O God, no man or creature can help or comfort me, so great is my misery; for my ailment is not physical or temporal. Therefore You, being God, and the One always able to help me, have mercy on me. For without Your mercy all things are terrifying and averse to me.
But I beseech You of Your kindness to have mercy on me—not the lesser mercy which you show temporarily for physical distress, but Your greater mercy which You show for the distress of the soul. Have mercy on me, and forgive me my sin. Amen. –Martin Luther
James is student at Yale Divinity School who loves thinking about theology and how it factors into his favorite stories. His writings on theology, philosophy, and other topics can be found on WordPress, and you can also find him on Twitter.