I’m just back from watching Scorsese’s new movie, Silence, described as ‘a powerful and haunting meditation on the nature of faith’. I focused in my last post on our Christian heritage, and how we downplay it in our own times. In an earlier ages, not least the 17th century, we Europeans did the opposite – we asserted our faith.
Inspired by the Counter-Reformation Jesuit missionaries took the gospel to Japan, and after a brief period of success, they were tortured, murdered, and the Christian faith driven out. Two Jesuits padres, Rodrigues and Garupe, seek out Ferreira, who led the mission in Japan, and is believed to have apostasised – converted to Buddhism.
Christianity as both personal quest and state religion, each reinforcing the other, with little room left for doubt.
The mission of Rodrigues and Garupe may have been very personal to them, but they wre also representatives of state power. The rulers of Portugal could only approve.
You only have to visit the National Gallery’s Beyond Caravaggio exhibition (on until 16th January) to see how far the patronage of popes, bishops and nobility supported the work of Caravaggio and those he influenced, such as Gentileschi, Ribera and Guido Reni. Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus is a powerful statement of faith, the spiritual operating at a very down-to-earth and human level, and yet it was commissioned by an aristocrat, kept in a private collection – and only since it became a part of a public collection can it be seen and appreciated by a wider audience.
Our Christian heritage is no simple thing. It expresses itself at a very personal level, but the higher levels of that culture were only available for the affluent and the educated. Which isn’t to devalue them, rather to be grateful that we live in a time when we can appreciate them.
The ironies and contradictions here are manifold, and I wouldn’t be able to unravel them in a thousand posts.
Likewise with the Scorsese movie. Christianity wasn’t out-argued in Japan, it was put down by brute force, by sustained sadistic torture, designed to dissuade and convert, all in the service of the state – violence of this kind had of course no place in Buddha’s teaching.
Rodrigues wanted some kind of message from God, to hear God speak as God spoke to Jesus in his despair on the cross, but none came. God keeps silence, and Rodrigues ultimately realises that God has been speaking to him in the silence. What that message is he must decide for himself. And how he should respond? Should he apostasise and thereby save the lives of the Japanese Christians who look to him, or hold to his faith and let them die?
History – political history, Christian history, Jewish history (as told so dramatically in the Old Testament) – is an endless succession crises, violence, treaties, of confusions and betrayals, dilemmas and ironies, and it will ever be so. But we can at least remind ourselves how others have been there before us, and how all the while they have conjured the beautiful and the spiritual, charity and compassion, peace and good neighbourliness out of all the contradictions of the past.
More than ever they now need to be our focus.