Martin Scorsese’s film, Silence, explores important parts of Christian faith through the historical example of Japanese Catholics and European missionaries during the Tokugawa Shogunate. I consider the film’s lesson to be essentially contrary to orthodox Christianty (I believe conservative Catholics generally disapprove of this film).
Our faith is tested in various ways. In the West Christians may not face the horrible persecution that their brothers and sisters are suffering in the South and East, but that does not make their experiences and doubts meaningless.
A few weeks ago, I was catching up with an old friend. I mentioned my own “existential” concerns in passing and X told me that s/he did not agree with organised religion (I think this was a hint at the Pharisaism that characterises a number of Christians), but agreed with the general ethical basis of loving people.
This sort of point is not new to me (most Christians who evangelise will encounter such a position at some point). It can lead to some analysis and attempts to solve the problem. Examples are:
- Distinguishing between the big organisations (denominations) and the simplicity of house churches and simple fellowships.
- Distinguishing between the sinfulness of ordinary humans and the life of Christ, who was without sin.
- Reminding the person that Christ is the Good Shepherd. He will bring His sheep to the Father – one way or another.
Our duty to the truth can make us question what we should do when faced with challenges of the kind mentioned above. In Silence, the question arises as to whether formal apostasy is the correct thing to do in the context, in order to save lives. Orthodox Christianity – and I will not disagree – says that apostasy of that kind is not the answer.
But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.
Apostasy in that context is wrong because it is unconscionable. Silence jars with orthodox Christianity because it presents a distorted version of what is going on subjectively and objectively. It posits that calling people to remain publically true to Christ at the cost of their lives is selfish – a form of pride.
This is not the case. While there may be sinful motives in a particular case that pollute the subjective part of the ethical act, that does not mean that it is morally acceptable to deny Christ if you still believe in orthodox Christianity. Such denial is unethical in its context because it is a lie.
Lying for the sake of saving lives can be justified. The common example cited in this regard is the person sheltering a fugitive from the Gestapo and telling the Gestapo that there are no fugitives in the house. The Silence apostasy temptation does not fall within this category.
In that instance, telling people to apostatise so that they will be spared torture and execution is (subjectively speaking) asking them to trade the promise of eternal life for security in this life (which incidentally is not guaranteed in any case). This is not acting in the victims’ best interests.
The calculus changes for the person who no longer believes in Christianity. But there is always the epistemological difficulty of knowing deep down inside what one really believes. Epistemology and psychology are difficult matters.
Christians do experience doubt. Silence is, among other things, about doubt. Doubt is an important tool in philosophy and science – but it has a curious life of its own. In truth, it is an awesome power, and it would be naive to treat it simply as a tool. Once questions have been asked, they cannot be un-asked. Viewed from this perspective, doubt can appear like a contagion, an evil to be isolated and cast out.
I believe it is important for Christians to offer ministry to agnostics and atheists who desire it, be they former Christians or people who never were Christian. I have been saddened by the animosity that AATW has experienced in the course of this year. I have no desire to see its return, but I do wish that people who have doubts and questions can receive an appropriate kind of ministry here.
By ministry, I do not mean attempts to bludgeon people into believing or facilitation of debates that may cause more heat than light. Rather, I simply mean companionship – walking with people through the darkness.
These are incredible times, and it may be that miracles will multiply as the darkness deepens. On the other hand, miracles, happening within the empirical realm, can always be doubted. The Christian is tasked with giving the most authentic testimony that he can, with relating why it is that he believes in God – not arguments advanced by others that he personally finds unpersuasive. Authentic Christianity is the light of truth in the darkness, the whisper of hope in the silence.