THE BLOG
02/01/2017 11:46 am ET Updated Feb 01, 2018

Silence: Moral Ambiguity and Faith

I suspect Shūsaku Endō's 1966 novel and Martin Scorsese's cinematic adaptation, Silence, will never be blockbusters in sales, even though they are both masterpieces of religious messaging. Both the book and the film penetrate to the heart of the alchemical mystery of faith, where it almost does not look like faith at all--and even like its opposite, especially for those of us born after the mystical balancing act of knowing and not knowing was largely lost during the Enlightenment. Only the older tradition understood darkness as the heart of the matter, and not the later glib certainties which still do not pass for illuminating "light."

To most, it might appear that two of the Jesuit protagonists in the story apostatized, or rejected their faith, in the presence of immense human suffering and the maddening silence of God. But Endō knew the older tradition, which honored silence and not knowing as a different kind of knowing and not needing to know as spiritual freedom. This is rare in our time, which is one thing that makes this film so potentially life-changing.

I will offer you my conclusion here and can do that best in the brilliant language of Christian Wiman, from his book My Bright Abyss. Wiman writes, "Faith itself sometimes needs to be stripped of its social and historical encrustations and returned to its first, churchless incarnation in the human heart" (pp. 93-94).

I believe that to strip faith of its "social and historical encrustations," and to excavate its deeper and almost blind foundation in hope and love, is precisely what Endō was trying to communicate. Scorsese's film powerfully succeeds at the same. However, I deeply fear that many will miss this, because it is done with such subtlety, character development, and simple brilliance. Perhaps one needs to see it twice to capture every important line and symbol--down to the very last surprising and shocking scene. I suspect that the American version of Christianity has never been known for much subtlety, nor has it been taught how to recognize symbol in either literature or Scripture--which, of course, is where all the power for transformation is held.

We were, nevertheless, taught in Catholic theology that the "theological virtues" of faith, hope, and love were not foundationally learned, chosen, or even practiced, but were instead an actual "participation in the life of God" and, first of all, given as a pure, divine gift. So daring! Once we could access this indwelling presence, we ourselves could practice, develop, and participate in these divine virtues--but the initiative was always from God.

This is why the profound nature of faith, hope, and love is not fully subject to rational analysis, and also why they overlap and fulfill one another. This was obvious in both the book and the film, at least for me. Each virtue must contain the other two to be fully a virtue! Simply stated: faith cannot be understood or lived without hope and love, hope cannot be understood or lived without love and faith, and love cannot be understood or lived without faith and hope. You might need to read that several times because your mind should be spinning, just as it spins while watching scene after scene in Silence.

So as not to steal the thunder--and it is indeed thunder--from your experience of the film, know that Shūsaku Endō (1923-1996), a Japanese Catholic, was a master of moral ambiguity, similar to Graham Greene (1994-1991) in the West. They both represent the best of Catholic moral imagination, as does Scorsese in this film that took him nearly thirty years to make. I personally would consider it the most effective religious film I have ever seen.

Although there are many wonderful sub-characters and plots, Fr. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) is led, step by step, to give up his own heroics, and desire for martyrdom, in order to free other human beings from their suffering. I could almost hear him offering Meister Eckhart's prayer, "I pray God to rid me of God!" And Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), a crypto Japanese Christian and Judas-like figure, might end up being the most sincere and utterly tried Christian of all, who chases after forgiveness the entire time.

Set in 17th-century Japan, Silence has the power to jolt and shock you into the paradox of a living and suffering faith until it morphs into love and the deepest kind of human hope. The final scene will take your breath away--and give you breath--while convincing you of nothing! It no longer needs to.