Indeed, there is a divinity that shapes our ends. Could it be that it is behind the movement out of the literary shadows of Shusaku Endo’s novel, Silence, which is now being effected by its translation into the medium of film by Martin Scorsese?

This novel is extraordinarily relevant to our time and to the story of faith and religion in the modern world. It is a novel about persecution, about compromise of principles, about apostasy and mercy, about heroism and cowardice. All of these are central to the harrowing tale at the centre of Endo’s Silence, considered to be his masterpiece by many.

Endo was a Catholic. In his life he mirrored the eternal conflict of the believer with this world, the world which does not know God. This is the conflict which German theologian Romano Guardini referred to when he wrote of the “true light” of Christ “showering radiance on everyone who comes near him.” But, he says, “if that person is ‘seeing’ in the worldly sense, something in him is willed to seek the world and himself rather than the Messiah. His eye is fixed on world and self and remains so.”

In Endo’s life this conflict was very much set in the context of his native Japan – a country and a culture which had for centuries determinedly set its face against Christ and God, opting instead for the world as seen through the vision of the Buddha. But the context of his Japan is now the context of the conflict of every Christian in the Western world – a world which has set out either to reject God and persecute believers, or which seeks to redefine God in its own image. The “Silence” of the title of Endo’s novel is the apparent failure of God to speak and act in the face of human suffering, injustice and persecution. But this silence is really the test of faith, a test which ultimately separates those who see the “true light” from those who do not – with glorious consequences for some, tragic consequences for others.

In his own introduction to the novel Endo wrote of its genesis:

For a long time I was attracted to a meaningless nihilism and when I finally came to realize the fearfulness of such a void I was struck once again with the grandeur of the Catholic Faith. But this brought him to another problem, that of “the reconciliation of my Catholicism with my Japanese blood”.

The great question for him, one that is at the heart of the brutal persecutions depicted in the novel is how to resolve the conflict which the Western trappings of the universal truth of Christ’s teaching, presented to the guardians of Japanese culture and tradition.

The novel reveals the murderous bewilderment of the Japanese cultural elite when confronted with the success of the Christian missionaries in the 16th Century. There was, on their part, a terrible and utterly flawed identification of the universal message of Christ with the cultural values of the agents who brought that message.

What makes the novel so relevant to the world today is that the universal truth of the message is again in conflict with the cultural elites – this time with the modernist and post-modernist and post-truth values increasingly dominating our consciousness.

On the one hand there is rejection and, where power makes it possible, persecution of Christians. On the other hand, there is the effort to absorb and modify the teaching to suit the new self-image of mankind. This is the equivalent of the “swamp” which Endo saw in Japan, absorbing and distorting the essential truth brought by the missionaries. He described it as a swamp that “sucks up all sorts of ideologies, transforming them into itself and distorting them in the process”.

This is the novel on one level. On another parallel level it is the story of the personal faith of individuals. Two of the three priests central to the story apostatize. The one who keeps protesting to God about his silence eventually hears a voice. The voice tells him to trample on the image of Christ, the public sign that his persecutors demand.

“You may trample. You may trample. I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. You may trample. It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”

But the denouement of the novel, from the hell on earth in which his soul, if not his body, has to go on living for 30 more years, shows us that it is his own, or another voice which he hears, not the voice of God. The suffering Japanese Christians, whom he fooled himself into thinking that he was acting out of mercy towards, went on suffering – and he even acquiesced in that suffering. His efforts at self-justification have all the hall-marks of torturous self-delusion.

The Silence of the novel is not the silence of men; it is the silence of God; it persists. As the history of Christian martyrdom teaches – no matter how hard this is to understand – the ways of God are not the ways of man. The mercy of God is not the mercy of man. The heroes of this novel, Fr. Garppe, Monica and the other Japanese martyrs depicted knew this; the anti-heroes of this novel did not know this. Martyrs down through history know this; the world does not know this.

On this level I doubt very much if the film is going to achieve much clarity. Martin Scorsese talks of it in term of his personal journey – a journey which took him from a Catholic Italian upbringing in New York, through The Last Temptation of Christ, to Silence and beyond. For Liam Neeson it may be similar, this time from an Ulster Catholic upbringing to, who knows what? We shall have to leave that to another judgement.

In a recent interview Neeson is quoted as saying that the movie’s exploration into faith and its theme of standing up for what you believe in made him examine where doubt fits into religion.

“The other component of faith that [director] Martin Scorsese explores in the film is doubt. They’re both [together],” he says. “And I think it is a God-given component. If we have this free will to question and if one believes in God, I think you celebrate that.”

Neeson added that one doesn’t have to be religious to appreciate the film’s message. “We all have faith in something, whether it’s faith in a marriage or relationship or faith in your work,” he explains. “It can be applied to anything.” That all sound a little too much like an echo from the “swamp” which pained Endo so much.

But Neeson is not reading the novel. He may be reading Scorsese’s script. On a personal level it is about faith and fear, rather than faith and doubt. The doom of the apostates is not that they doubted or apostatized because of doubt. The key to their tragedy was the weakness of their faith in the face of a demand on themselves to deny divinity. In the end the heroism of their activity in spreading the Faith was insufficient when that faith was put to the ultimate test. The focus of the novel – in the case of three of the characters, Rodrigues, Fereiera and the Japanese peasant, Kichijiro, – is on the destructive power of this weakness which brought them down.

Endo has been rightly compared to Graham Greene and Flannery O’Connor in his preoccupations and the paradoxes he uses to explore them. He is a rare species, a Catholic writer from an Asian culture. As such his work must stand, in spite of its complexity, its paradoxical character and its consequent risk of misinterpretation, an essential link in the long and troubled history of the evangelization of the Far East and Japan in particular.

Michael Kirke writes from Dublin.  

Michael Kirke was born in Ireland. In 1966 he graduated from University College Dublin (History and Politics). In that year he began working on the sub-editorial desk of The Evening...