Monthly Archives: January 2017

The Theodicy of Endo’s “Silence”

St. Francis Xavier travelled to Japan in the mid 16th century and began a successful missionary movement. In 1582 it was estimated that there were about 200,000 Christians in Japan. This new religion was tolerated at first, at least in part because the Spanish and Portuguese traders that came with the missionaries also brought lucrative trade. But it did not last.

When the Tokugawa shogunate took power in the early 17th century, the Shoguns began to be uncomfortable with Christianity. They saw how the Catholic Spanish and Portuguese were colonizing China and Korea, and worried that if Christianity continued to grow the same thing could happen to Japan. And so in 1614 all Catholic missionaries were expelled, though a few priests were allowed to remain. Lay Christians were required to swear at least nominal allegiance to the shogunate by registering at a local Buddhist temple.

This was the beginning of the end, though. The colonization of China and Korea continued. The French joined the Spanish and Portuguese, and the Protestant English and Dutch were just as aggressive. And so, by the mid 17th century all forms of Christianity was outlawed, all missionaries and many lay Christians were expelled. Any remaining Christians who refused to renounce their religion were executed. This persecution drove the few remaining Christians underground where they remained until Commodore Perry force Japan to re-open itself to trade in 1853.

In the 1960s Shusaku Endo, reflecting on this history, asked himself what a Jesuit priest would encounter if he smuggled himself into Japan in about 1640s, after the Tokugawas forced Christianity underground. The result was what most critics rank as his masterpiece, the novel Silence. Martin Scorsese has made the novel into, as they say, a major motion picture. I have not seen the film and so I have nothing to say about it. The novel, though, is a different story. It is a wonderful book.

Endo’s main character, the Jesuit priest Father Rodrigues, smuggles himself and a colleague into Japan. Eventually he is captured and is forced to watch as believers are tortured and executed in the most heinous ways. Much of the book is taken up in his agonized reflections on God’s silence. How can God permit such evil to continue? Why does He not intervene? Where is God’s love, God’s justice? Does not His very silence condemn Him as complicit in the evil? Yet how can God be evil? How can we understand the extreme silence of God?

Endo is hardly the first to turn these questions into great literature. Think of the silence of Christ in the face of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov. Think of the enormous literature of The Holocaust that wrestles with the very possibility of religion in the face of the silence of God. “Where is God?” is Elie Wiesel’s agonized question in Night, and the haunting answer comes “There. On the scaffold.”

In the early 1970s Wiesel and the French composer Darius Milhaud collaborated in writing the oratorio Ani Maamin. The Three Patriarchs confront God with The Holocaust, yet God remains silent. Each tells a story of suffering and after each story, God remains silent. When they are finished, a voice demands of them,

Does not God have the right
To question you, in turn,
To ask of man:
What have you done with my creation?

They are dumbfounded and return to Earth. This time they see faith, infinite hope, flourishing in the midst of suffering. They do not realize that God has come with them, and weeps for the faith of the Jewish people. The oratorio closes with an affirmation:

I believe in you
Even against your will.
Even if you punish me
For believing in you.
Blessed are the fools
Who shout their faith.
Blessed are the fools
Who go on laughing,
Who mock the man who mocks the Jews,
Who help their brothers
Singing, over and over:
Ani maamin. [I believe.]

At the end of Silence, Rodrigues wrestles one final time with God and says, “Lord, I resented your silence.” And God answers, “I was not silent. I suffered beside you.” This is also Wiesel’s answer. Rodrigues is comforted by the realization that even Judas suffered. Even Judas was in anguish. Even those who desecrate God’s creation, in their very acts of evil, suffer. And God suffers with them. The books ends with Rodrigues saying to himself, “…Our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this point would have spoken of him.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. said this: “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” This infinite hope, I suggest, is the very essence of faith. Both Endo and Wiesel, out of their own traditions, are telling us that it is, ultimately, the answer to the apparent silence of God. I agree with them. Read the book.

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Thoughts on Getting Old

Life after death does not much interest me. It will be what it will be, and, as I wrote last time, I am content to let it take care of itself. This life is enough for me. Or, as Thoreau, I believe it was, said, one life at a time. Death, on the other hand, is another matter. If life interests me—and it does—then surely its end should also interest me. And it does.

I am currently re-reading Steinbeck’s marvelous novel, East of Eden. (Why most critics think Grapes of Wrath is his best novel is beyond me. But then maybe that why I’m not a critic.) East of Eden is one of those novels you—or at least I—have to read and re-read and then read once again. Every time I read it, it is a new novel. The first time I read it, I read it through the eyes of the young men, the young Adam and Charles, the young Samuel Hamilton, the young Lee, Aron and Caleb. Then I read it through the eyes of the middle-aged parents, middle aged Lee and Adam and Samuel. This time I am reading through the eyes of the aging Samuel Hamilton and, when I get to that section, the aging Lee.

The other night I read Chapter 23, sections 2 and 3, and it made me cry. This is the passage in the novel when Samuel realizes that he is getting old and that his days are numbered. There is a big family re-union at his “worthless” farm. (We in California would call it a ranch.) As hosting all such event does, it requires a lot of work and takes a lot out of Samuel. He exhausts himself and goes to bed before his children. Steinbeck writes, “He was puzzled at himself, not that he had to go to bed but that he wanted to.” (Page 282 in my edition—the scholar in me won’t quite let go!) His children then realize what has happened and what it means. And that is when I cried.

It surprised me. I may have cried at this section before because of the beautiful and tender writing. This time it was different. The beautiful writing was still there, to be sure. But this time, reading it through Samuel’s eyes, I saw what he saw. (And isn’t that the point of all great fiction, to lead people to see through eyes expanded by the eyes of the novel’s characters, these newly created people who will live far beyond our few years?) This time I saw my own life beginning to edge close to its conclusion, as Samuel’s life began to edge to its end. I am approaching my 72nd birthday. (March 26—and I expect all of you to wish me Happy Birthday!).

My parents are buried in the cemetery that surrounds the church in which I grew up. Several years ago I visited their graves and found myself wandering through the cemetery, looking at the graves of people I knew. My sister-in-law. Her parents. A few others. There are people buried there who I knew as young, as middle-aged, or as elderly. At least one was in high school with me when he died. Suddenly I realized that I was seeing the graves of people I thought of as old when I was a growing up, and yet they were younger than I am now when they died. It was a shock.

I have no idea how much longer I will live. None of us does. But when we are young and when we are middle aged, our death always seems remote, out there, real but not very, an abstraction. At my age, that changes. Now, I fully expect to live another 15 to 20 years. It could be less, and it could be more. Of course. And most of those years I expect to be productive in one way or another. There are the books I am writing, and there are the others that I expect to write. Now though, the writing of them begins to seem more important than the publishing of them.

I have performed all if my children’s weddings, and I dearly love watching their lives unfolding over the years and becoming real apart from me. I love even more dearly watching my grandchildren growing from infancy into adulthood. I have every expectation of holding great-grandchildren in my arms eventually, welcoming them into this beautiful world, and wishing them the love of life that I have known.

And we all know where this leads. Age beckons. I cannot hold my great-grandchildren in my arms and be 25 years old. I will be somewhere between 75 and 85 before I hold the first of these beautiful children. And the chances of them actually remembering me is minimal. And that it as it should be.

I have lived a life surrounded by the love of more people than I can even imagine. They have all taught me how to love, how the myriads ways of love weave a harmony of such glorious music that it enthralls us and enraptures us and reveals to us something of the divine within each of us. What a gift life has given me! If I could thank personally each person who has loved me I would have to live to be a very old man indeed. It would take me that long, and even then I would never be finished. But the dearest of you know who you are, and you know how deeply grateful I am and how deeply I love you.

I love this life and this beautiful world. And even as I love it, I know that the time will come for me to leave it, to pass it on completely. I have swum through life in a sea of love and beauty. No matter how it is that I may die, I will die into that love and beauty. And that is enough for me.

Why I Don’t Worry about R-Incarnation

A lot of people seem to think about re-incarnation from what strikes me as an egoist point of view. Consider. When considering future lives, they seem to think that when this body dies, my ego will go forward into the future and be reborn into another body. But I will still be I, only within a different body, a body answering to the name of, let us say, Griffith Powell living in Corwen, North Wales, in the 22nd century.

When considering past lives, people seem to think in essentially the same way. This ego that is inhabiting my current body used to inhabit a different body, a body answering to the name of, let us say, Pavel Grigorevich Ivanov, living in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the 17th century. But this Pavel Grigorevitch is still me.

Griffith and Pavel Grigorevich are just a little confused about whom they really are. They think they are somebody else, but they are really me, me in disguise if you like. It is not that I am Pavel Grigorevich in a future life but that Pavel Grigorevich is me in a past life. By the same token, it is not that I am Griffith in a past life but that Griffith is me in a future life. Somehow this way of thinking doesn’t strike me as very likely. I’m reasonably sure neither Griffith nor Pavel Grigorevich would see it that way.

Now consider the Buddhists insight that there is no enduring ego. What we call “I” is just another thing that comes together and so will also come apart. Whatever “I” am, “I” will no more survive than will this living body that I call mine. This makes sense to me, and it is on this that I build my view of death.

But Buddhists also seem to put great store by re-incarnation. If “I” has no enduring reality, how can there be any re-incarnation? They must think about it differently. Consider this metaphor. Your ego, your self, is a burning candle. As you live your life, it leans now this way and now that way, slowly approaching another, unburning, candle. You get closer and closer to that other candle, and at the moment of your death, your flame ignites the other candle and then goes out.

“What about Karma?” I can imagine someone asking. “How does karma fit into this candle metaphor?” First, contrary to popular opinion, karma, I think, is not about what goes around coming around. It is about the direction of one’s life. At the risk of pushing the metaphor to the breaking point, karma, I think, is what determines the direction one’s candle happens to be leaning. This way; that way; another way; it’s all about the karma one builds up until eventually, at one’s death, one’s karma pushes one’s candle all the way to another candle and ignites that new candle.

Clearly, like all metaphors, this has its limitations, but consider. Is the flame in that new candle the same flame as the flame in the old one, or is it a new flame entirely? And even more important, why does it matter? Why does any of this matter? What difference does it make what metaphor of death moves you?

So far, so Buddhist, eh? But wait. There’s more. One hears Buddhists saying that Life and Death is The Great Issue. Yet I have found all this concern about re-birth, re-incarnation, karma, and the like is simply so much idle speculation and not a skillful means at all. After all, none of this is something that any of us will ever know anything about, at least not until we actually do die. So why worry about any of it?

It seems to me far more important to direct my attention to this very life I am leading right now, this very moment. Is it not more important to direct my attention to leading an authentic life as I am living it and rather than to worry about whatever may or may not happen next or what may have happened previously? I’m afraid Griffith and Pavel Grigorevich will just have to take care of themselves, as, of course, they will whether or not I waste any time thinking about them.

Instead, I am impressed with what Christians call prayer without ceasing and Zen Buddhists call sitting while not sitting. This, it seems to me, is what it means to live an authentic life: to break the wall between spiritual practice and day-to-day living, making of every act an act of spiritual practice, every word spoken or even thought a prayer, every breath a meditation. To the extent that I do that, what possible worries might I have about death? And to the extent that I do not, shouldn’t this be where I exert my effort?