Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence is one of the most unsettling novels a Catholic could read. Recounting the story of Portuguese Jesuits facing martyrdom and persecution in seventeenth-century Japan, Endo does not hesitate to pose to his characters – and readers – the most difficult moral dilemmas imaginable regarding persecution and apostasy, and even whether God might command the characters to sin and apostatize. There are no easy answers to these dilemmas, but considering the new film adaptation of this novel by Martin Scorsese, now is a good time to ponder them.
To give a brief plot summary, Silence is set 1643, after the Japanese persecution of the Church led to Catholics going underground. In response to the reports that Jesuit priest Fr. Christovão Ferreira has apostatised and is now collaborating with the persecutors, Fr. Sebastian Rodrigues and Fr. Francisco Garrpe travel to Japan in order to minister to the hidden Catholics and to discover the truth about Fr. Ferreira. With the help of Kichijiro, a Japanese Catholic who apostatised to save his life, they find these hidden Catholics, but Kichijiro betrays Fr. Rodrigues to the authorities. Fr. Rodrigues is eventually forced to witness the brutal torture of some Japanese Catholics who have already apostatised, and is told that the torture will not end until he also apostatises by trampling on an image of Jesus called a fumie. Although he does not want to profane the image of Jesus, he cannot endure witnessing this torture, and so apostatises in order to save the victims.
An Irrational and Transcendent God
One of the most difficult passages in the novel to understand is when, just before trampling, Fr. Rodrigues believes he hears the image of Christ say to him, “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 the world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.” It seems as if Jesus is commanding apostasy, as if God is commanding Fr. Rodrigues to do evil. Is it not contrary to God’s nature to command sin?
In his speech at the University of Regensburg in 2006, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI raises this question, referring to the medieval thinker Duns Scotus and the Muslim thinker Ibn Hazm, who see God’s freedom as so transcendent that
he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done. This gives rise to positions which… might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God’s transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions.
The parallels between the idea that God might command idolatry and Fr. Rodrigues apostatising at the apparent command of Christ Himself are obvious. Benedict points to the Gospel of John, which calls God the Logos, which means “both reason and word.” Irrationality contradicts God’s nature, and so a rational God who loves His creation will not want that creation to rupture its relationship with Him, and it will be possible for humans to know something of Him. A God who transcends religion so fully that He can command idolatry, however, is unknowable.
Throughout Silence, Fr. Rodrigues longs to hear the voice of God, and learn why this suffering must occur, but God does not speak until He commands Fr. Rodrigues to trample. God’s silence, the silence of the title, would seem to further distance Him from human understanding. So, does Silence see God as so otherworldly, as so far above our sense of reason and goodness, that He can command evil?
There are the beginnings of a solution in the fact that Fr. Rodrigues is very much concerned with imitating the image of Jesus, most obviously when sees his own reflection of his face as being like that of a crucified man. Similarly, while in prison, he believes that “his fate and that of Christ were quite alike,” and that he will suffer, just like Jesus did, out of love for the Japanese Catholics. If Silence understood God to be so entirely transcendent that our reason and sense of truth and goodness were completely divorced from Him, then Fr. Rodrigues could not actually find consolation in reliving and imitating the Passion – though ultimately, Fr. Rodrigues betrays Jesus like Judas and Peter do, so his reflection of Jesus is not perfect, to say the least. Fr. Rodrigues believes in a God he can know and partially imitate, so God must not be completely distant from him. One cannot imitate an irrationally transcendent God, and so Silence must see God as rational. How, then, to understand the apparent contradiction of Jesus commanding apostasy?
The passage in which the image of Jesus tells Fr. Rodrigues to trample is reminiscent of the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Fr. Rodrigues is trying to carry the burden of feeling responsible for the torture the apostates are undergoing, and this is an incredibly heavy one. It is not even the case that his own life and physical well-being are at stake; he will not be tortured or martyred. One thinks of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which O’Brien, reprogramming the thought criminal Winston Smith, says, “In this place there are no martyrdoms.” Just as Winston is made to betray his love for Julia and love Big Brother before he is executed and wiped out of history, Fr. Rodrigues is not allowed to suffer for the Japanese Catholics, but must apostatise, is given a Japanese name and wife, and disappears from the novel’s narrative.
But to get back to the point, Fr. Rodrigues is doing his best to limit evil, and cannot find a satisfactory solution. There is no good choice between apostasy and letting the people he should love suffer, even if he bears no real responsibility for their torture. Gabriel Blanchard of Mudblood Catholic cites (heads-up: profanity after the jump) this story as an example of the
times when the thing itself doesn’t work—you believe, you’re praying, you’re trying, you have the support of family and friends, you have a creative outlet … and somehow, it just isn’t enough?
I don’t think that Christians in this country take this possibility seriously enough. Catholics especially. Oh, we don’t believe in a health-and-wealth, Prayer-of-Jabez, power-of-positive-thinking Gospel According to St Joel Osteen. But we’re all too ready to take a view of both morality and vocation that I consider false and disastrous: because God grants us the graces to pursue these things, therefore sins, imperfections, and even sorrow and suffering are signs of some fundamental wrongness. But the truth is, happiness, sincere faith, and virtue don’t map to one another at all neatly on earth, especially since they can be hard to ascertain even in their own right.
The world is fallen, and so even if one loves God with all of one’s heart, mind, and soul, as Fr. Rodrigues tries to do, he may still end up in a situation where that love is not enough. As Blanchard asks,
And that, is that [virtue and love for God] enough? Is that enough to sustain a person through the seasons of dryness and dark, the times when we wonder whether it might not be better to chuck the whole thing so as not to embarrass the Church, or because we so stingingly don’t deserve His love, or simply because we’re worn to exhaustion? I have no idea. Very probably not. What it does do, for me at least, is reassure me that it doesn’t have to be enough. This is in His hands, not mine. I’m not strong enough to ruin it. If nothing is enough, if I break, that’s actually okay. He can fix me, in His own time and manner. I’m His.
“The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit”
Fr. Rodrigues, at the beginning of his journey, believes that he can share Christ’s glory, even though he must endure trials and suffering, but at the end of his story, he knows that he cannot share that glory, having had his faith in his own strength broken. He cannot reach up to encounter God. Like Rick in Knight of Cups, Fr. Rodrigues does not need to transcend the world in order to find God – indeed, he cannot; instead, God enters the world to find him. He cannot meet God by transcending the evils of the world on the strength of his own faith, but this does not mean that God is distant from him, a sinner. Instead, it is as a person broken almost beyond repair that he encounters Christ most fully. God is not so transcendent that He remains hidden from abased sinners; instead, He lowers Himself, taking the form of a slave, of a condemned man, who understands the pain and suffering of Fr. Rodrigues, and it is there that Fr. Rodrigues finds Him and can mirror Him. Endo presents God as one who endures betrayal because he knows the weakness of those who love Him, and who will not abandon those who detest that betrayal, like St. Peter. God reaches down to meet the people who cannot reach up to meet Him. Christ instructs the disciples to be perfect, and does not offer forgiveness as licence to be imperfect, but to help their love be perfected.
The hope Blanchard describes, that one’s imperfect virtue need not be the strength by which one finds God, is the hope to which Fr. Rodrigues must subscribe. He seeks his rest from a burden he cannot carry by giving to Christ the burden of a priest’s apostasy, which Christ promises He is able to carry. In His mercy, Jesus does not demand of Fr. Rodrigues what Fr. Rodrigues cannot give: the strength to carry the purported guilt for the torture of the apostates. It is clear that the apostasy is still evil; Fr. Rodrigues detests that he betrayed the Lord. That evil is not minimized, and he does not exploit mercy and sin with abandon, presuming that he will be forgiven, but his only hope out of his awful dilemma is to rely on that mercy when he makes an evil decision. And when he does make that evil decision, he rightly despises his failure.