Today we start a three part subset of the topic of virtue by discussing the nature of the Theological Virtues proclaimed by the Apostle Paul in what is described as his first letter to the believers in the Greek city of Corinth. These three virtues are faith, hope and love and as you can see from the title this week’s message is about faith.
The process we’ve been following aligns with the work by Karen Swallow Prior, a professor of English at Liberty University. Her book, On Reading Well, addresses the topic of virtue by using literary works to help us better understand the concepts behind twelve virtuous traits historically categorized by philosophers and theologians as cardinal, theological or heavenly.
To illustrate the virtue of faith, Professor Prior chose the novel Silence by Shusaku Endo, published in 1966. I was not aware of this book before reading Prior’s own work nor have I seen Martin Scorcese’s movie version released in 2016. So my perception of the author’s intent is limited to what Prior reveals in her own narrative about the storyline. Therefore at the outset I must admit to an inability to fully appreciate Endo’s desired impact for what is regarded as his masterwork.
Silence is a fictionalized account of a true episode in Japanese history, the hunt for and execution of hidden Christians in the mid-1600s. The protagonist is a Portuguese Jesuit priest, Sebastiao Rodrigues, sent to Japan in 1639 to investigate the rumors of apostasy by another priest. Rodrigues is the fictional representation of a real priest sent to Japan during that time for the same purpose.
Endo pictures Rodrigues as initially condescending towards the Japanese Christians he encounters. He is eventually betrayed to the local authorities, who devise a compelling test of his faith, which they term a mere formality. This test calls for Rodrigues to step on a wooden plaque bearing the image of the crucified Christ. The authorities view such an act as a renunciation of a person’s Christian beliefs. Their enticement for Rodrigues to accept this mere formality is centered on his ability to thereby alleviate the suffering of those Japanese Christians, who are being subjected to a harsh torture in his presence.
Endo imbues his story with his own form of stimulus for Rodrigues to step on the plaque as the priest perceives the voice of Christ speaking from it, giving Rodrigues permission to step on him. Following his act of submission to the officials’ demand, Rodrigues is given a Japanese name and wife and forced to live the rest of his days essentially as a captive. All the outward trappings of his Christian faith are totally stripped away to the point that upon his death he is given a Buddhist burial.
The question Endo’s novel raises is whether a person can be a Christian inwardly without any external expression of faith as is seemingly mandated by the words of Jesus who said, “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 10:32-33) My guess is that most of us fail to explicitly express our belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior outside a close knit circle of family and friends who share our beliefs. In that regard how does that make us any different from the shamed priest?
I am not sure that Silence is really about faith, but about beliefs. These are two different things. Endo was Catholic and while his story is based on historic people and events, his beliefs determined the fictional details and the outcomes of his representative characters. The importance of the wooden icon is one prominent indicator of how his own beliefs influence the consequence of Rodrigues’ actions. Another is the voice of the Christ emanating from a carved wooden plank. Implied in the balance of Rodrigues’ life is the concept that a person can commit the unpardonable sin. The concept of faith is subsequently lost beneath the weight of a person’s self-imposed limitations to its efficacy.
Faith may be the most common of virtues. We all live by faith on a daily basis. We don’t consider this to be true, however, when our faith is not placed in a religiously prescribed deity. But think about a driver’s faith in the belief that fellow drivers will obey the rules of the road within a humanly reasonable scope. A red light means stop, green means go. White lines designate lanes in which we are to guide our vehicle. Double yellow lines mean no passing of frustratingly slower drivers. Faith abides in these circumstances.
Such faith is not blind. It is based on experience. Experience also teaches us to be wary of potential offenders, who interpret a yellow light as a cue to speed up or attribute stop signs at an intersection as a suggestion, not a requirement. We cannot possibly handle all of the decisions we must routinely make without the use of faith in place of objective analysis. The burden of thought is just too much for a simple mind to constantly bear. We are inclined to call our choices intuition, however, not faith.
Experience based faith follows a biblical model. When Jesus changed the water into wine, John – an eyewitness – says that “He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.” These are the same men, who were already convinced that Jesus was the promised Messiah after meeting him at the Jordan River, where the prophet known as John the Baptist proclaimed Jesus to be the Lamb of God. John, the gospel writer, tells us that later, after Jesus was raised from the dead, these same men “believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.” Between these two episodes other events occurred where the disciples and those present put their faith in Jesus based on what they saw, heard and even ate, as in feeding a multitude with a few fish and loaves of bread.
This repetition indicates that faith is not static, but dynamic. Whether we say that it grows or matures is immaterial. It is enough to understand that faith is unlike our material possessions, whose features never change. Faith retains its essence, while constantly expanding in its ability to be awed by events. It grows through experience, even in the lives of the most faithful among us.
Prior’s choice of Silence as an appropriate literary work to study the virtue of faith is problematic for me. As I have confessed in previous messages, I learn more easily when I see positive representations of any virtue rather than piecing together some semblance of the truth through a character’s negative qualities.
Children’s stories likely offer a more positive expression of faith than do adult novels, which can never seem to wholly escape the bonds of cynicism no matter the storyline. Think Pollyanna or Heidi or The Secret Garden or The Little Princess and you get the idea of the persistence of faith in the face of adult inspired adversity. Little wonder, then, that Jesus himself insisted that to enter the Kingdom of God one must do so as a little child; trusting, dependent and faithful.
Endo’s control of his story can be seen in his choice to provide an ambiguous ending to the travails of a beleaguered priest. A Protestant writer may have been more inclined to allow Rodrigues to exert a valid Christian influence through his charitable treatment of others rather than by requiring him to make explicit statements about the way of salvation being solely though the only begotten son.
That Rodrigues would hide his beliefs after his act of supposed heresy is normal. In fact it is in keeping with biblical pronouncements. The prophet Amos wrote about the oppression experienced in his time that “Therefore the prudent man keeps quiet in such times, for the times are evil.” (Amos 5:13)