Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

Scorsese’s Silence: Film as Practical Theodicy

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

Scorsese’s Silence: Film as Practical Theodicy

Article excerpt

I.Introduction

Martin Scorsese's adaptation of Shusaku Endo's novel Silence takes up the anguished experience of God's silence in the face of human suffering. Set in 17th century Japan, Silence vividly depicts the brutal persecution of the Kakure Kirishitians (or hidden Christians) and the Portuguese Jesuits who try to support them. Some 40,000 were tortured and martyred during this period. 1 The main character, the Jesuit priest Sabastiăo Rodrigues, finds his faith gutted by the appalling silence of God, exclaiming "The weight of Your silence is terrible" (1:05).2 His problem is not fundamentally intellectual. He does not really want or need a theodicy that explains why God's silence is compatible with God's love of these persecuted Christians. His problem is existential in the sense that he is directly experiencing this silence as a crushing weight. Rodrigues's words indicate that his problem is not precisely the one philosophers have generally set themselves to addressing, namely, whether God's apparent hiddenness is conceptually compatible with God's existence. Yujin Nagasawa calls the particularly intense combination of the problems of divine hiddenness and evil that Rodrigues and these hidden Christians experience the problem of divine absence: an experience of God's hiddenness that gives devout believers who are enduring great suffering reason to think that their lives are void of meaning.3

Philosophers widely acknowledge that the searing personal experience of evil and hiddenness is untouched by even the most sophisticated conceptual explanations of evil and hiddenness.4 Accordingly, Nagasawa argues that there can be no solution to the problem of divine absence, only a response that points toward a way of living with it. Drawing on Endo's novel and other writings, he suggests devout believers might adopt an attitude of cosmic optimism-a hope that all will be good on a cosmic scale despite their inability to see it-and regard their experience of divine absence not as the end of faith but as its true beginning. While Nagasawa is surely right to seek a practical as opposed to an intellectual response to this existential problem, the cosmic optimism he recommends may well not be accessible to those suffering so intensely. Not only is the attitude itself based upon a kind of conceptual solution, namely, that human beings are incapable of seeing how all could be well on a cosmic scale due to their cognitive limitations; it also requires some deeper experience to ground it.5 To hold out hope in the midst of the darkness of divine absence, one must be intimately acquainted with the love and goodness of God.

In my view, the narrative itself-both in the film and the novel-serves as the grounding experience that makes the attitude of cosmic optimism available to those experiencing divine absence. Jesuit founder, Ignatius of Loyola, placed imaginative contemplation at the heart of spiritual practice, believing that careful visualization-what he calls the composition of place (compositio loci) and the application of the senses-creates a space for revelation and consolation.6 Clearly schooled in this practice, Rodrigues often merges his experience with Christ's passion, reading his journey as so many stops along the via dolorosa. When his experience of silence is at its most intense, Rodrigues finds Christ's "Why hast thou forsaken me?" echoing in his mind, and senses the true, human terror Jesus felt before God's silence.7 Viewers are invited, in Ignatian fashion, to stand with Rodrigues even as he stands with Jesus with this bewildering question on their lips, hoping for some consolation even when there is no demystifying word to be heard.

This essay explores the way Scorsese's Silence raises the problem of divine absence for Rodrigues and through his experience suggests a way of living with it, thereby offering a practical response, if not a solution, to the problem. This mode of response makes the cosmic optimism Nagasawa calls for accessible by grounding it in personal identification with the god-forsakenness felt by Christ upon the cross in an experience akin to catharsis that delivers a clarifying emotional consonance. …

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