I couldn’t help but grimace as I read the headline from Douglas Todd’s recent article in the Vancouver Sun (“Evangelicals Mostly Alone in Believing God Punishes with Earthquakes“). It highlighted, once again, the lengths we will go to to find (or manufacture) moral meaning in times of chaos and suffering. Combined with news of some painful things happening in the lives of various people in the various domains of my life and work, I have been thinking a lot about the silence of God these days, and how we are to live and think and speak about God as people of faith in a broken world.
Alongside these reflections, I have been spending some time revisiting Japanese author Shusaku Endo’s brilliant novel, Silence. As the title suggests, the silence of God—perceived or real—in the face of human pain is a prominent theme in this book, as is the unavoidably contextual nature of all theological reflection. A few years ago, I wrote a paper based on this book and its themes for a course on Christian spirituality at Regent College which I have reproduced in part below.
I realize that this is a bit of a departure from the script around here, and that the appetite for reading a long-ish academic paper is likely limited, to put it mildly—especially in the blogosphere. And I realize that the questions and circumstances addressed in this paper and in Endo’s novel are not necessarily the same as the ones brought into view by the earthquake in Japan or even the ordinary pain and doubt of life. Nevertheless, I offer it, with the obligatory caveats and qualifications that come along with something written in a different time and place and for a different purpose, to any who might be interested in a window into some of my own wrestling with the question of how/if/why faith works in the context of pain and the silence of God.
Shusaku Endo (1923-1996) was somewhat of a reluctant Japanese Catholic, who was baptized in 1933 at the request of his mother and against his will upon their return from Manchuria to Japan. As evidenced by his writings, the rest of his life was spent “re-tailoring with my own hands the Western suit my mother had put on me, and changing it into a Japanese garment that would fit my Japanese body.”
It was not a natural fit, and much of Endo’s life was characterized by the suffering that came with attempting to combine a “foreign imperial religion” with his native culture which was viewed by the home of his church as dangerous and suspicious. For Endo, becoming Christian meant becoming western, but this was precisely what proved most problematic upon his return to his native Japan. The western ways of understanding God, sin and salvation simply did not seem to work; they seemed utterly incapable of being transplanted into this “swamp” of a land.
The problematic nature of attempting to introduce a western religious tradition, with all of the authoritarian and imperialistic connotations that it carried, into a profoundly dissimilar Japan is depicted in what is widely acclaimed to be Endo’s masterpiece, the novel Silence. The story is set in 17th century Japan—a dark period for Japanese Christians which was characterized by the systematic and horrific persecution of a church that had grown exponentially during an initial period of peace and tolerance made possible by the political disunity of the Sengoku Period.
Upon the consolidation of tribal fiefdoms (daimyos), Christian missionaries began to be viewed more suspiciously, and after a series of rulers who vacillated between persecution and tolerance, a full-scale attempt to rid Japan of this “germ of great disaster” who long to “disseminate an evil law, to overthrow true doctrine,” was initiated. Martyrdoms ensued, and many glorious accounts emerged of Japanese Christians and Portuguese missionaries who refused to apostatize even while subjected to truly horrific persecution and, ultimately, death. The Japanese authorities soon realized, not unlike those in the early Roman Empire, that their actions were not having the desired effect—martyrs were being produced, and this was emboldening others to imitate their heroic perseverance in the faith. New measures were required, and new measures were devised.
The Tokugawa Bakufu (shogunate) decided that torture was the answer; the Christian’s death would now be preceded by hours, days, even weeks of truly unimaginable suffering. The most brutal of these, the ana-tsurushi, involved the hanging upside-down of the victim over a pit of excrement and other filth, with a small incision being made in the forehead to give the blood some vent. Most did not survive more than a day or two before either succumbing to death, or apostatizing.
It was this barbaric form of torture that was to claim, nearly one hundred years after the missionary effort to Japan began, the first missionary apostate—the Portuguese Provincial, Christovao Ferreira. It was the seemingly impossible news of this famous priest’s apostasy that lured the protagonist of Silence, Sebastien Rodrigues, to Japan. He had to see for himself, if this heroic missionary had actually surrendered to the infidel, and, if he had, to succeed where his predecessor had failed.
Over the course of the first months after Rodrigues’ arrival, a picture begins to emerge regarding the complex and problematic nature of the Catholic missionaries’ presence in Japan, and what it entailed for the Japanese people. On the one hand, a Christian remnant population gradually emerges from the various villages that Rodrigues travels amongst who are desperately thankful to finally have a priest to hear their confessions, baptize their children, and celebrate mass. On the other hand, Rodrigues becomes aware of the trouble and persecution that his very presence in Japan is bringing upon these simple Japanese Christians.
The samurais discover that Christians are still alive in the villages, and there are rumors of priests from foreign lands. Rodrigues manages to avoid capture for a time, but can only watch helplessly as scores of Japanese Christians are tortured and killed rather than betray their priest. He had come to bring the gospel, but increasingly Rodrigues realizes that he is only bringing more suffering to an already over-taxed, impoverished, and helpless people.
Rodrigues eventually finds himself in the hands of the shogun Inoue. The whole book has been building to this point—will Rodrigues be faithful where the man he once admired was not? How will he suffer? Will he apostatize? All of these questions are answered, but in unexpected ways. Rodrigues is, indeed, presented with unendurable suffering, yet it is not the priest, but the simple, long-suffering Japanese Christians who are subjected to the ana-tsurushi. All that is required for their suffering to cease is for Rodrigues to trample upon the fumie—to place his foot upon an image of the face of Christ in an act of apostasy.
What the peasants hanging in the pit do or do not do is of no consequence—apostasy will not save them. The only thing that can end their torment is the priest’s apostasy. Rodrigues is forced to listen to the moans and cries of agony of the Japanese peasants as their lives are slowly and painfully extinguished, and this, eventually, proves to be more than he can bear. In the climax of the book, the missionary tramples on thefumie in order to save the lives of the Japanese peasants:
The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what he has considered to be the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in the bronze speaks to the priest: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross. The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.
Endo’s moving and controversial conclusion—a priest apostatizing in order to save the very people he came to lead to Christ—forces some difficult questions, and asks us to rethink our notions of Christ, martyrdom, and what “lived theology” means in the— context of a God who remains silent.
What kind of a corrective does the life and thought of Shusaku Endo offer to more typically ‘Western” understandings of spirituality? Perhaps most obvious is the simple recognition that the haunting and painful experience of the apparent silence of God in the midst of human suffering must be accounted for in any attempt to articulate what it means to unite belief and action—to live Christian theology.
Living our theology may be, perhaps even must be painful. For Rodrigues, facing a world capable of forcing the awful decision of either apostatizing or watching helplessly as brothers and sisters are tortured and killed was an excruciating experience which forced a painful decision. Endo’s novel, and indeed his very understanding of the radical cultural dissimilarities between the western world where Christianity was nourished and rose to prominence, and the “swamp” of Japan, which is so hostile to the “implanting” of foreign religion highlights the fact that Christian spirituality may look radically different in different cultural and historical contexts. Indeed, this may be absolutely necessary.
How is Christian spirituality impacted by God’s silence? This is a question that may be asked far too infrequently in cultures such as our own. Since Constantine, the church has been associated with strong, autonomous and enormously influential nations and empires, and this has undoubtedly had a profound impact on themes of weakness and suffering. Endo asks us to rethink the stark and unavoidably difficult paradoxes associated with a kenotic Christ—emptied and broken for the sin of the world.
This is powerfully attested to in the climax of Endo’s novel, where Rodrigues’ finally hears from Jesus, but what he hears is utterly unexpected—permission to deny him! The face he saw was not the glorious risen Savior of the world, but a weary face, wracked by pain, rejection, and loneliness.
Rodrigues’ understanding of reality—of Christ himself—is changed, and how his theology is lived changes as a result. He sees the lives of his Japanese brothers and sisters as worth more—to him and to God—than the determination to see his glorious martyrdom through. He also is faced squarely with the truly awful nature of reality—the world of human experience which is capable of producing the kind of pain Rodrigues’ suffered while listening to his brothers and sister’ lives slowly, and painfully slipping away is placed in direct conflict with a theology that proclaims God’s goodness, love, and mercy.
The profound dissonance between the power and goodness of the God of our theology, and human experience characterized by suffering and the silence of God must be, and has been resolutely acknowledged throughout church history, and in the very canon of scripture itself. The books of Ecclesiastes and Job, as well as the powerful Psalms of lament all grasp this apparent contradiction profoundly, yet all are determined not to minimize it, or pretend that it is something other than it really is. God is silent, at times, and this affects how our theology is lived. Endo stands squarely in this tradition of determining to live before God honestly—refusing to yield to overly simplistic understandings of all human suffering as a pedagogical necessity, and at the same time to steadfastly resolve to walk with Christ through the darkest and most crippling experiences of a broken world.
In the space between the God of our theology, and the world of our experience, stands Jesus—God among us, suffering with us, for us, and fundamentally reorienting our conceptions of things like strength and weakness, mercy and justice. Rodrigues learned things about Jesus in Japan that he may never have learned in his native Portugal. He began to truly examine the implications of God becoming man to save those who could not save themselves, and he began to see how the western world in which his faith was born had slowly muted the implications of Christ’s shocking declarations about weakness.
This is revealed in a moving passage where, in the process of performing his priestly duties in villages of Japanese peasants, Rodrigues begins to grasp the true import of Christ’s work:
As the water flowed over its forehead, the baby wrinkled its face and yelled aloud. Its head was tiny; its eyes were narrow; this was already a peasant face that would in time come to resemble that of Mokichi and Ichizo. This child also would grow up like its parents and grandparents to eke out a miserable existence face to face with the black sea in this cramped and desolate land; it, too, would live like a beast, and like a beast it would die. But Christ did not die for the good and the beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt—this is the realization that came home to me acutely at that time.
The harsh Japanese land, so unforgiving and hostile to faith, the pathetic figure of Kichijiro, a wretched Japanese apostate who would eventually sell Rodrigues to the shogunate for a few miserable pieces of silver, the Portuguese priest who denies the very Jesus whose gospel he had come to spread in this new land—all of these elements of Endo’s novel combine to underline Endo’s conviction that Christ came to identify with the weak, the rejected, the unlovable—even, provocatively, the apostate.
Whatever we make of Endo’s story, and the controversial picture of a priest apostatizing in the belief that Christ would have done the same thing in order to save his suffering brothers and sisters, we are, at the very least, challenged to examine the extent to which we have emphasized the victorious, risen, and exalted Savior at the expense of Christ as God Incarnate, emptying himself in order to show solidarity with the staggering and wounded seed of Adam, and, consequently, to dignify our suffering and validate our sense of expectation and hope that one day these wrongs will be righted.
Our expression of Christian spirituality must reflect the “not yet” dimension of the Kingdom of God introduced by Christ. The victory has been won—this we believe. But our experience of the world is not always, or even often, one of victory; indeed much of the world struggles under pain and oppression that many of us in the “Christian West” know nothing about. Endo will allow us no illusions about the pain of the world and the silence of God—both are presented in starkly realistic terms, and both contribute to the climax of the novel that is as painful and uncomfortable as the world which, for Endo, makes it necessary.
What kind of spirituality does Endo leave us with? Certainly Endo’s understanding of God leaves us feeling somewhat uncomfortable, to put it mildly. Endo’s conclusion seems profoundly negative, even hopeless. Christ is portrayed as being able to do little else but suffer alongside of broken humanity, and there are certainly few signs that Christ is God’s triumph over sin and evil. It may be asked how a God who suffers alongside his creation offers any ultimate hope. This is a fair and necessary question. Our view of reality—of the nature of God, and the justification for placing our trust in him—shapes our spirituality, and the reality Endo presents to us does not, on the surface, seem to offer much hope.
Perhaps the element of Endo’s novel which is most necessary for us to hear is that any authentic Christian spirituality must be honest. We must be honest about the inherent pain of human experience, and about the silence of God. Endo’s strongest accusation against Western Christianity was that its theologians and philosophers had constructed an elaborate intellectual edifice in order to both make human experience of the world more easily explainable, and to defend God from the accusation that his involvement in the world was not what it ought to be. Endo, and Kazoh Kitamori before him, considered this to be the task of the Japanese church: to make the global church more sensitive to the pain of God.
Endo was convinced that the Japanese people needed to hear about a God who understood their pain, and who would embrace it himself. He claimed that they could not resonate with the magisterial, immutable deity which was the legacy of medieval western scholasticism—that the Japanese people needed to see the other side of God to balance the “western version” that seemed such an awkward fit in a land so far from its origins.
Perhaps the same holds true for us—we need Endo’s view of reality, his view of Jesus to balance aspects of life and faith that have not been adequately addressed by the cultural package in which God has been transmitted to us. It is quite likely that Endo’s “Japanese Christianity” will feel as awkward a fit for Western Christians as “Western Christianity” felt for him, yet each needs the other to offer the most helpful and honest way of understanding God, the world of experience, and how our theology is to be lived in response.