It has become a truism (which does not make it less true) to describe our era as one of globalization. It may be useful to make two lists—one for the ways in which this fact has improved the circumstances of human life, the other for those in which it has magnified the suffering and evil that continues to oppress our species of mutant big apes, still trapped on a small planet circling a not very impressive star. Perhaps one item to be included in the first list is the ability of cultural symbols to cross borders, and thus to deepen the sense of our common humanity. In January 2017 a new film by Martin Scorsese with the title of “Silence” was released. It is based on a novel with the same name by a mid-20th-century Japanese writer, which is very similar to the name of what may well be the most anguished memoir of the Holocaust. The film, the novel, and the memoir have in common the age-old question of how to cope with suffering (both the one rather misleadingly ascribed to “natural causes” and the one humans inflict on each other).
Scorsese, the widely acclaimed American film maker, has previously produced works inspired by a profoundly Catholic sensibility that deal with difficult religious topics. The new film deals with the brutal persecution of Christians in 17th-century Japan. It is based on the novel Silence (1966) by the Japanese writer Shusaku Endo (1923-1996), which it follows faithfully. Endo, who was raised in a family of Catholic converts, deals with the same historical episode. The “silence” to which both Endo and Scorsese refer is the silence of God who does not interfere with acts of monstrous cruelty, and the question of what human beings can or should do in this situation. The historical facts are clear: In the 16th century Catholic missionaries from Spain and Portugal had become successful in converting substantial numbers of Japanese, mainly in the area of Nagasaki. Japan was at that time under the rule of the so-called Shoguns, a feudal elite who at first had no problem with the Christian mission. Their concern was triggered by events in a nearby Asian country, the Philippines, where there were also mass conversions, which served to facilitate the colonization of the archipelago by Spain. The Shoguns now perceived Christianity as a threat, which they had to neutralize. What followed were several decades of brutal persecution in the early 17th century, as a result of which Christianity was effectively extirpated from Japan until the beginnings of Japanese modernization in the late 19th century. Tens of thousands of ordinary Christians were executed, including some priests (those who survived were expelled). All Christian literature was destroyed. One very curious development was that of the “Hidden Christians,” who pretended to give up their faith but secretly practiced it, combining elements of Buddhism and Shinto with what they remembered from the teachings of the disappeared missionaries. They had no books to remind them, so some of their reconstructions were quite odd—such as the Virgin Mary in some of their texts becoming part the Trinity. When Christianity again became legal and some Catholic churches (including a large cathedral in Nagasaki) were rebuilt, a few “Hidden Christians” did not join but preferred to stick with their idiosyncratic version of the faith.
One of the distinctive and most cruel ceremonies of the persecution was the so-called fumi-e: A representation of the face of Jesus Christ was placed before an individual accused of being a Christian—in order to avoid terrible torture followed by execution, the accused only had to curse Christ and tread on his face. Not surprisingly, many did; a number chose martyrdom (some were much later declared saints by the Roman Catholic Church). In Scorsese’s film it is a priest who is subjected to the test: It is he who must renounce Christ in order to save not himself, but a lay Christian who is tortured before him (the images of this are very disturbing). A voice whispers to him to stop the torture by submitting to the ceremony (it is ambiguous whether the voice is Christ’s or the Satanic tempter’s).
The problem at issue here is what in Christian theology has been called that of theodicy. The Greek word means “the justice of God, ” and the question is very simple: How can God, who is all-powerful, refrain from stopping the suffering of the innocent? The question is perennial. Endo was a young man when Nagasaki was destroyed by the second atomic bomb, which killed large numbers of innocent people. The problem of theodicy is most acute in the three monotheistic traditions that originated in the Middle East; it is a little less so in the traditions coming out of southern and eastern Asia. (Max Weber proposed that Hinduism, and presumably Buddhism, provide the most rational theodicy, because the central notion of karma means that you have no one to blame but yourself for whatever happens to you—you cannot put the blame on God. That is correct, but the problem of suffering remains to be confronted: The first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism is the universality of pain.)
Most of what passes for atheism is either a naive belief that science can explain everything or a childish desire to upset pious grandparents. I would propose that the only serious atheism comes out of the problem of theodicy: Arguably its most powerful expression occurs in Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, where Ivan Karamazov refuses to accept any acceptance (say by promising solace in a future life) of the death of a child (in this case, the killing of the child of a serf for the amusement of a feudal lord). Why is the death of a child so special? I think there is a fundamental anthropological reason for this: The first smile of a child stakes a claim to non-negotiable happiness. Speaking of human universality, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the Bengali poet who was the first non-Westerner to receive a Nobel Prize for Literature, wrote: “Every child is proof that God has not given up on humanity”—serious atheism is the sense that God, if he exists at all, has forgotten humanity.
Elie Wiesel (1928-2016), originally from Romania, was a survivor of the Nazi death camps in which most of his family perished. More than any other individual, Wiesel served to keep alive the memory of the Holocaust—and to agitate against genocide in any part of the world (for which activity he received the Nobel Peace Prize). Shortly after the war he wrote a short memoir in Yiddish, titled And the World was Silent. He then lived in France for a while, before moving to America, and an expanded French version of the memoir was published under the title Night (1958—English translation in 1960). I was struck by the theme of silence, so similar to the problem of Endo’s novel. But, as reviewers have noted, there is a shift of emphasis between the Yiddish and the French version of Wiesel’s memoir: In the Yiddish version the silence is that of the world, which witnessed the Holocaust and did not try to stop it; in the French version what is at issue is God’s silence in the face of these horrors.
Wiesel’s memoir is almost unbearable to read (I read it in English). In it is a scene that screams. In one of the death camps of Wiesel’s captivity a young boy was sentenced to death for stealing food (the inmates were always on the verge of starvation.) Wiesel only describes the boy as having the face of an angel. He was to be hanged, but he was too light to have his neck broken when he was thrown from the scaffold. The guards had to hold him and pull him down in order to strangle him. It took him a long time to die. All the inmates had to watch. The prisoner standing next to Wiesel whispered: “Where is God?” Wiesel answered: “He is there, on the scaffold.” Long after I read this passage, it occurred to me that Wiesel’s answer could be understood in two different ways: As meaning, “In some way God is sharing the agony,” or “Belief in God is no longer possible before this horror—if there ever was God, he is now dead.” I met Wiesel a few times while he was teaching at Boston University. I was impressed by him, by his intellectual passion and his personal warmth. I was tempted to ask him what he meant by his answer to that terrible question at the murder of the child. I felt that it was inappropriate for me to ask him. I do know that in his teaching he was very much concerned with the Kabbalah, the great Jewish mystical tradition, which also contains a very distinctive approach to the problem of theodicy. I don’t know whether he personally accepted it; I’m pretty sure that he would have known about it.
In 1492 occurred the greatest Jewish tragedy between the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE and the Holocaust—the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Many of the expellees were given refuge in the Ottoman Empire. A group of them settled in Safed (which is now in northern Israel), among them a group of Kabbalists led by their teacher Isaac Luria (1534-1572). One could say that Luria made a cosmology out of the recent mundane experience of exile: God himself is now in exile. As the Hebrew Bible asserted, God did create the world. But the creation was profoundly flawed by a cosmic catastrophe: The vessels that contained the light by which the world was created were broken, and ended up as shards on earth. God is absent, silent, in the ensuing darkness. However, he has not left forever. The broken vessels can be retrieved, repaired, and restored to their place in the heavens. This drama of redemption has already begun, and human beings are called to participate in this “repair of the universe.”
There is a widespread idea in the field of religious scholarship that there are many religious traditions, each with distinctive particular features, and that therefore one cannot say anything general about religion at all. The premise is correct: The progressive notion that all religions are essentially the same is mistaken. The particular features of religious traditions are often contradictory—they cannot all be true—as there are great differences between theodicies. However, there is at least one minimal belief (or, if you will, intuition) present in all the variety of human religions—that beneath, or beyond, the empirical reality of everyday life there are other realities, and that there are hidden connections between them. I will close with a story that has no immediate connection with what I have written about in this post thus far.
Chiune Sugihara (1900-1986) was Japanese consul in Kaunas, Lithuania in 1940. The city was besieged by Jews desperate to get out before the worst happened. Contrary to his instructions, Siguhara issued thousands of transit visas to Japan (the estimates vary between 10,000 and 40,000), allowing these individuals to leave Lithuania and find refuge in some other country—and thus to be saved from the impending Holocaust. Siguhara paid a personal price for this action. He was reprimanded by his government and, upon returning home after the war, he had to subsist on a very meager pension. But Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Israel, awarded to Sugihara the title of one of the Righteous among the Nations, given to Gentiles who saved Jews during the Nazi genocide.
Hillel Levine wrote a biography (In Search of Sugihara, 1996) in which he tried to understand the motives of this extraordinary man. Did Sugihara have any Jewish connections? No, none. Did he have any political disagreements with the government he served? Again, no. Was he religious at all? No. Late in life Sugihara was interviewed by a journalist who asked the same question: “Why did you do this?” Sugihara was at a loss. Finally, all he could say was: “These people were very desperate.” In the language of Lurianic Kabbalah, perhaps one could say that Sugihara’s story is that of one man’s effort to retrieve the broken vessels.