Silence is the story of a strong-minded Christian leader reduced to a collaborator against his own faith–unable, unwilling, or otherwise led astray from the path of martyrdom and consistent affirmation of the truth he loves. For a Christian, it is the ultimate horror story, because in the end it seems to either damn the follower or damn the faith. For the believing mind, these are two equal and opposite sources of spiritual depression–the Scylla and Charybdis lying on either side of the narrow way. Silence would have been somehow more bearable if only the faith of a naive minister was at stake, but the novel’s aim goes further: Endo wants to put the faith of the entire community of Japan on the operating table. Here lay the most challenging and perplexing theme of Endo’s book for me: the question of whether an entire community of people may fall outside of God’s grace despite their best efforts, or else that they had never accepted the truth at all.
To enter this wound, Endo uses the disturbing device of the antagonists being more insightful than the protagonists. But for there to be any hope in Silence, evil could not have the last word. Throughout, I read with rapt attention trying to discern whether there was any lie or mistake in Ferreira and Inoue’s appraisal that Christianity is incompatible with Japan.
I think I found it: I have to think that Ferreira is mistaken when he claims that the communities of Japanese believers are not Christians on the basis of their understanding of God. He says that they cannot conceive of God as anything other than “a glorified man.” Ferreira regards this as pure syncretism, but there is another way to look at it: that the lived experience of suffering brings the Japanese to a deep understanding about the incarnation. After all, God became a man, a man of sorrows, who suffered like they did, and was glorified for it. What if, due to their sufferings and their lack of Aristotelian categories of being, the Japanese believers found it either impossible or irrelevant to see beyond the humanity of God?1 The point that, I think, Endo desperately wants his readers to hear–so desperately that he scrupulously avoids coming out and saying it–is that the Lord did establish his church in Japan, but he spoke to them in a language and through experiences that the Western church could neither hear nor understand.2
My hunch is that neither Ferreira nor Rodrigues can fully grasp this. Inoue does, but only up to the limit of his concerns. Because he is not a believer, and is really only interested in stopping the influence of foreign powers on his people–the political implications of faith–he is content to let the “strange Christianity” of the farmers pretty much alone, supposing they will eventually wither and die out. But though the Church never flourished, it never died either–the author’s own upbringing proves it. Throughout the novel, Rodrigues too supposes that if he and Garrpe are captured or killed, the Church in Japan will be lost, apparently forgetting how the Japanese community subsisted on lay-leadership before his arrival.3 At the end of the novel, after Rodrigues apostatizes, the magistrates still find it necessary to put to death yet another stubborn family of Japanese Christians. If Japan is ultimately inscrutable to the Western Church, so too is native Japanese Christianity inscrutable to both the Japanese authorities and (sadly) the Western Church. Perhaps Silence is Endo’s attempt to make his church comprehensible both to Western believers and Japanese nonbelievers. Today, the literature on indigenous Christianity is much more robust and accepted by orthodox Christians and practitioners of mission. But if I’m right about Silence, Endo was surely ahead of his time.4
While I was living in Africa, I had the chance to meet a Catholic priest named Claude Boucher. He founded a mission in central Malawi named Mua with a very different philosophy of mission than most other churches in the region. When Boucher arrived in Malawi in the the 1970s, he did not lay plans for a Bible college or a chapel. Instead, he immersed himself in the culture of the Chewa tribe so thoroughly that he was the only white man to ever see certain of their sacred rituals. For this reason, he was the subject of no small amount of controversy–many rituals involve the sort of dramaturgy that appears to invite spiritual possession. But he felt it was necessary for the flourishing of the Church. Boucher described to me the culture of the Chewa people as roots which nourish the trunk and branches of the Christian faith. “Let them grow into good Chewa, and then they will grow into good Christians.” After finishing Silence, I wondered whether the same could be said for the believers in Japan, and how history might have turned out differently if the “strange thing” of Japanese worship could have been recognized by the broader Church, not as a syncretic bruised reed, but as a good shoot awaiting full flower–a spore ready to permeate the swamp. One way of interpreting Rodrigues’s fate is that of a forced conversion–not to Buddhism–but to the Church of Japan.