It has been just over four years since I reviewed the movie Lincoln. Silence has caught my attention as a movie of our time that questions the choices we all must make about who we are.
Some of us recognize our fundamentally spiritual nature and so turn our attention to various teachings in order to inform ourselves of that nature. There is a long history of religion in the world that purports to do that for us. While most religions attempt to point directly to that nature in us, and many claim to have found its core, still they are mostly organized around tribal and cultural bases. They can only be described and explained in terms of a dominant culture and among the common experiences of a tribe’s members.
Throughout history, many claims have been made for the emergence of a one true religion. Indeed, some have hit the spot for many by satisfying the need and yearning for an identification with a higher power (God) and leading to a fulfilled and purposeful existence.
These claims have also produced numerous movements, some of which have been in conflict with cultural and tribal norms. They have also led to inner conflict within individuals who question most seriously who they are. This story portrays a scenario that includes both phenomena, closely scrutinizing the conflicts produced by the “one size fits all” approach to religion, both in the culture and in the individual. It is, simply, torture.
In this story, the Christian missionaries who visited medieval Japan early on met with some success. Their message appealed to the peoples’ spiritual nature, who found fulfillment simply in their belief and devotion to that belief. Christianity gained a foothold in the culture. Of course, this was met by opposition by the temporal and the entrenched spiritual powers who were the guardians of the status quo. At first, they simply killed the Christians and their priests. Soon, however, they found that they could not kill the idea of Christianity, which still tended to grow with the arrival of each new missionary. So, they took a more radical approach.
They began to exploit a perceived weakness in the practice of Christian theology. They found that the seemingly unshakable strength of devotion was based largely on the beliefs of the faithful, which was, simply, a belief in Christian doctrine. These beliefs seemed to be based on an external authority (dogma), which was somewhat contrary to the way of spirituality as practiced in Japan, which was Buddhist (Zen), based on individual enlightenment. With centuries of tradition on their side, they sought to drive a wedge between these Christian beliefs and the self by pointing to unanswered questions within the self.
The local temporal and spiritual establishment did not give up their approach to persecution, which was, basically, physical torture. In this version, they simply included a psychological component that was designed to instill and exploit doubt in the Christian faithful. The physical torture was designed to force the faithful to make immediate choices that pitted their faith against the unanswered questions about the self.
The fact that these unanswered questions exist is the crux of the story. The protagonist priest recognizes that his faith is largely based on doctrine, and has no direct answers to his questions…only silence. He implores God to break the silence. Ultimately he finds it necessary to go deep within the silence and contemplate there. He begins to look within himself for answers, to hear the voice of God.
This is an ugly, horrible story. It is also necessary to be understood in the face of unspeakable atrocities that may, and do, befall many of us. Mr. Scorsese must have been very uncomfortable in its telling.