“Religion is the root of all evil”. A view proffered by one member of the monthly book group as it met to discuss Shusaku Endo’s book, “Silence.”
This controversial statement dominated the evening’s discussion and the group’s attempts to understand and appreciate the complicated themes tackled in Endo’s novel.
The host and proposer of the book provided a brief introduction, making the connections between Endo’s upbringing, his personal experiences and the novel.
Born in Tokyo in 1923, Endo’s mother converted to Catholicism and had him baptized. He found himself in a tiny minority of Catholics in Japan His commitment was not strong but his interest in 20th Century Catholic fiction led him to study French Catholic novelists at Keio University in the late 1940’s and to enroll in the University of Lyon to continue his studies. On returning to Japan his writings addressed the difficulty of reconciling the contradictions within Japanese culture with Christian ideology.
He contracted tuberculosis while abroad and had a lung removed. Endo described faith as being as awkward as a forced marriage and as uncomfortable as a Western suit of clothes.
“Silence” is considered by many to be Endo’s masterpiece. It deals directly with the religious concerns, which plagued his entire life. He died, aged 73, in 1996.
It has been described as “ one of the twentieth century’s finest novels” and received the “Tanizaki Prize in 1966. A film based on the book, directed by Martin Scorsese, was released in 2016.
Endo’s novel is set in 17th century Japan, a country that had initially embraced Christianity through the efforts of Saint Francis Xavier and had now outlawed it. The plot is based on the attempt by two young Portuguese Jesuits to encourage and support those remaining believers in the brutally hostile environment generated by the politics of the time.
Father Rodrigues and Father Francisco Garppe travel to Japan where they find the local Christian population driven underground. Suspected Christians were forced to renounce their faith by trampling on an image of Christ (a fumie ) or be imprisoned, tortured and killed. The two priests are forced to look on as other Christians are tortured and are told that all they need do is renounce their faith in order to end the suffering of their flock.
Rodrigues struggles to come to terms with the suffering of his fellow Christians. Suffering which he can bring to an end by apostatizing. He is also tormented by Christ’s silence. Despite his pleadings and prayers and the torture and persecution he witnessed, God remains silent.
The group discussed the historical context. The Shimabara rebellion signaled a tightening of Japan’s national seclusion policy and the officially endorsed persecution of Christianity.
It was suggested that the Japanese chose to end relations with the Portuguese and Spanish because the evangelizing of Catholicism undermined the authority of the then government and threatened it’s wider trading ambitions. This was debated and led to the suggestion that deeper cultural factors were involved in the eventual expulsion of the Europeans.
The discussion focused on the groups understanding of Japanese culture, it’s apparent contradictions and how these manifested themselves in the novel. The traditions of honour and politeness contrasted with a reputation for brutality, cruelty and aggression. The use of torture as a means of both physical and mental torment juxtaposed with the caring and sharing attitude of many of the books characters.
The group returned to the topic of religion, exploring its impact on society over the ages for both good and bad. Providing a moral framework for people, bringing them together on the one hand and inspiring conflict on the other. It was pointed out that throughout the centuries people of various religions persecuted and killed people of other religions. Typically unproven belief is stated as factual by many religions and taken to extremes by some followers motivated by their belief that their religion is the “true” religion
It was suggested that faith is not a way of understanding the world but stands in opposition to science and scientific method and as a result is divisive and dangerous.
Comparison was made with secular ideologies. While it was asserted that religion or religious disagreements were directly and indirectly the cause of conflict and were responsible for the deaths of countless millions it was also pointed out that Marxism as practiced in many dictatorships and to a lesser extent Facism and Natzism were also responsible for the death and suffering of many millions of people.
This debate about the worth of religion over the ages was temporarily postponed while further consideration was given to the novel.
Endo’s narrative technique of presenting the first half of the novel as if it were written by Rodrigues in letter form and then switching by adopting a third person perspective was considered to be a clever device. It was thought to help to build the reader’s interest, their care for the wellbeing of the central character and to intensify the sense of loneliness and isolation in a foreign land. It was also thought that it added suspense and uncertainty to the fate of Rodrigues’s who struggles to hold on to his faith and is driven to question the very existence of god.
“ He had come to this country to lay down his life for other men but instead of that the Japanese were laying down their lives for him.”
It was thought that while this narrative device strengthened the novel, it resulted in a lack of dialogue and consequently no alternative points of view were forthcoming. It was thought that this was both limiting and challenging for the reader.
The vivid descriptions of the environment; at certain times peaceful and serene and at other times threatening and foreboding; alternatively representing the presence and absence of God were much admired.
Endo’s many references to Judas throughout the text interested the group. Rodrigues missionary to Japan was motivated by the news that his mentor, Father Ferriera, had denounced his faith and apostatized, as a result, he was considered to have betrayed his faith. The character of Kitchijiro is also presented as a betrayer and carries a strong Judas likeness but as the plot unfolds it is Rodrigues himself who, by committing apostasy and being complicit in the persecution of the faithful, takes on the mantle of Judas. Just before he tramples the fumie God’s voice tells Rodrigues.
“For Judas was in anguish as you are now”
Endo’s clever use of these characters to explore whether betrayal is ever justified or can be justified within Christianity was one of the many greatly admired features of the novel
Rodrigues had doubts about his faith almost immediately after he arrived in Japan and Endo skillfully built on these doubts using the silence of God to further undermine his beliefs.
The realization that Christ had never been silent but that the internally conflicted Rodrigues had had “no ears to hear or eyes to see.” brought focus to the novels central exploration of who God is.
Silence enables the freedom of choice and it is this that Endo tries to reconcile.
The debate about religion continued. Members of the book group have diverse religious beliefs. Christian, Roman Catholic, Humanist, Agnostic, and Atheist. Some appeared apathetic. A significant number are scientists by profession whose training and experience are based on analytic thinking. The synergy, or lack of synergy between Science and Religious belief has been much discussed. Some suggested that intuitive thinkers are more likely to be religious but that getting them to think analytically can weaken their belief.
It follows that they brought a skeptical view to the conversation on religion. The need to find evidence to prove or disprove ideas about religion or the existence of a god or gods was considered essential by some. However it was one of those scientists who suggested that it was important to retain an open mind. He reminded us that not too long ago people believed that the world was flat. Scientific evidence proved otherwise; demonstrating that what might be considered unlikely or inconceivable today might be evidenced in the future. The fact that there is little evidence presently available to support the existence of God does not mean that God does not exist.
The group concluded that while “ Silence “ was not a comfortable read it was intensely moral, challenging and thought provoking. It proved to be a catalyst for sharing diverse views on religion. It raised profound questions about faith and culture. About the differences between East and West and the never-ending debate about who or what God is. Perhaps the application of science will confirm the existence of a “divine creator” but not in my time.