15 06 2020

I reviewed Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence years ago, but I only recently saw the film adaptation (I don’t watch many movies these days). My main issue with these types of novels / films, namely one’s the treat issues of tortured religious conscience in a modern context, is that I am acutely aware of the rift between ancient and modern religiosity. Perhaps this is a matter of written records, but the radical subjectivity of this literature is more an indication of absence than a heightened sense of presence. I don’ t believe for a minute that modern people “get God” more than their predecessors. If anything, we are greatly more self-absorbed to the point of thinking every difficulty is some sort of existential crisis.

That seems like a harsh dismissal, so I will try to explain. The very brief summary of Endo’s novel is that a Jesuit priest in the seventeenth century sought out his former mentor priest who apostatized in early modern Japan due to the severity of the persecution there. The existential question that caused both priests to commit apostasy was if their personal heroism and integrity was worth the suffering and certain damnation of others, namely the flock they were sent to nourish. Both characters concluded that it was not, and ended up betraying their True Faith. The twist is that Christ is portrayed in the novel as someone meant to be betrayed and stomped on. So the question stands if the apostasy was real or a fulfillment of the true message of Christ on a higher level.

Reading old martyrologies, it’s rather clear that the early Church saw the question more in black and white. Apostasy was apostasy: lines were always drawn in the sand and martyrs won their crowns by not crossing them. A whole heresy emerged (Donatism) around this issue. Being a very modern person myself, I suspect that these stories were sanitized for the edification of the faithful. The clearest example of this is in the stories of the virgin martyrs. How many times in the old hagiographies was a virgin martyr’s “honor” threatened (i.e. her virginity) by sexual assault and somehow God saved her from that particular indignity? The contemporary critical scholar could conclude that, of course, sexual violence was no doubt part of these persecutions, but that fact has simply not been mentioned or accepted until modern times. We have no problem mentioning in the present obvious realities of violence that only decades before would have not been appropriate to bring up.

I am now reading the Tenth Canto of the Srimad Bhagavatam, which tells of the life of Krishna on Earth, and one somewhat odd thing about reading krsna-katha is putting away your assumptions about drama and pathos in these stories. The same goes for reading the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, etc. The fact that any of these “characters” are in the story at all means they all get a happy ending. All the enemies of Krishna receive liberation, as a sort of “consolation prize”: “Thank you for playing.” If anything, people fighting on the opposite side of Krishna and Arjuna in the Battle of Kurukshetra received a fuller darshan of Krishna, seeing Him at the reins of Arjuna’s chariot as thousands of arrows fly at them. There is no sense of tragedy because life itself is just a play for Krishna’s pleasure. Even Arjuna’s tortured existential crisis before the battle breaks out is just a work of yoga maya that allows Krishna to speak His song, the Bhagavad Gita, before the bloodshed begins.

I have said before, the focus on suffering, the intense meditations on the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, is the foundation of the Cross, Tomb, and Resurrection. The question for modern Christians is: Can one take this too far? I am not going to answer this because, honestly, I don’t have “skin in the game” here. Though I might have an external allegiance to Christianity due to personal circumstances, I no longer have an emotional or spiritual allegiance to the point of having to pick a side. These questions form part of my personal story, so I continue to think about them. But when the gay or trans person, or woman who is pressured into having an abortion, or the person pressured by personal circumstances to commit a crime, or, for that matter, a banker can all claim some participation or affinity with the suffering of Christ in spite of their violations of God’s law elsewhere, what does the Cross even mean at that point? When is one able to break out the “tough love” and just indicate that the sinner suffers for his sins, and under no circumstances is he excused due to this circumstance or that feat of theological nuance?

In the case of the apostate priests of Endo’s novel, the voice of the ancient Church, as far as we could tell, would tell them exactly what to think. The fault for the suffering of those persecuted in their names lay entirely at the feet of the persecutors. All they could do was pray for their suffering flock and trust God. Yes, for the modern person, that may not be good enough, but no good can come from evil. Am I saying that I agree or that this is the right decision? Again, I don’t really have a horse in this race. A God who gives the choice of unbearable suffering or eternal damnation is never going to sit well with the psyche of the modern person, so why pretend? Which is just a way of me saying I don’t believe it. The whole situation is a product of bad beliefs, and it was probably not going to end well. I still admire the fortitude and heroism of the martyrs, but these “complex” treatments of religious suffering (Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory comes to mind as well, obviously) don’t do much for me. At most, they remind me of my fundamental metaphysical problems with Christianity in general. The material finger-trap of suffering is not escaped with more suffering: suffering has no “redemptive” power. And thinking it does results in a lot of ridiculous paradoxes, such as the one at the end of Endo’s novel.



3 responses

4 07 2020

Actually, Endo’s novel has a historical basis–a real missionary priest who really did apostasize and live out the rest of his life as a Japanese with a wife and family. IIRC, Endo said his novel was an attempt to figure out the psychology of why the historical priest would have done that. Whether Endo’s “answer” is persuasive or not is a matter of YMMV; but it’s clear that whatever was going on was not the simplistic black/white view of the early martyrs (who were, after all, some twelve hundred years before the time period of the novel).

15 06 2020

I’ve not read the novel, but: there’s a reason that one priest (Adam Driver) is killed off pretty early on and the other (Andrew Garfield) lives to apostatize. The whole movie (whether intentional or not) is an exploration of psychological torture, about how to break someone who believes he is the hero of the story. Garfield is a priest who repeatedly identifies himself with Christ (repeats various phrases from Christ) and yet he is the one most fragile about his own mission (he screams “you’re going to die!” at the Japanese peasant woman who says they’re going to Heaven). It’s a mirror for the white-liberal savior complex in modern terms (simultaneous compassion and contempt for the “other”).

In your terms, it shows we can’t save, only God saves: Jansenists would shake their heads at this Jesuit!

15 06 2020
Mario Fong

What would your approach to the problem of persecution be? At some point, even in Krishna consciousness, one would assume that persecution of the faithful would still be an issue (granted, this could be my ignorance of the matter showing). Recognizing that material “reality” is not the end-all-be-all, and that it’s rather an elaborate game, gets you so far; but in the end, wouldn’t you still counsel steadfastness and longsuffering in the face of worldly aggression. Is it a case of counselling the same action (as a Christian, that is) but with different motivations, or is there an entirely different principle at work?

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